The Klassical Komeback, Pt III: Surge or Free Fall?

A couple of mainstream media outlets have picked up on the Great Classical (crossover) Comeback of 2006 lately: My old employer NPR had a story on All Things Considered The hook in the Tuesday (Mar 20) New York Times story was the just announced Classical Blowout Store from – a response, in the dot-com’s words, to “the disappearance of prominent brick and mortar music stores and the fact that most music retailers are scaling back their selection of classical music.” with led to the Time’s observation that Amazon’s initiative comes at a time when classical music sales are either advancing nicely or in a free fall, depending on whom you believe and what you consider classical music.

And that’s the problem, innit? Who do you believe? The initial trigger for all of this reporting was the Nielsen SoundScan report of classical sales being up 22.5 per cent – something I wrote about last month. And, hmm….as part of their rationale for the new service Amazon notes that their 2006 sales of classical music were up – get this – 22 per cent! Same accounting methods? Does Amazon consider Josh Groban to be as classical at Louis Moreau Gottschalk? They don’t say.

Similarly, after noting that “independent [classical] labels like Koch and Naxos report that their sales are also up”the above-referenced NPR story ends with the throwaway line, “the total number of classical albums purchased online more than doubled last year.” That’s great…but, again, what’s the definition of “classical?”

And, for that matter, what, exactly, constitutes a downloaded “album,” anyway? More on that in a future post. A more sobering assessment of the health of classical-music comes from the market-research firm NPD group, quoted in the Times article: NPD Group’s consumer survey data, which does not include albums like these in its classical music category, shows that classical sales dropped last year by 28 percent, and have dropped by 54 percent in five years.”

Ouch! Whether the numbers are truly up or down, there does seem to be a renewed energy in retailing classical music. After all, classical music fans, traditionally older and wealthier, “actually buy, rather than steal, their music,” to quote the Times. I noticed, too, doing some focus groups in Philadelphia last year that a lot of men of, ahem, a certain age, LOVE those much-maligned “bricks and mortar” stores – us hunter-gatherer music freaks intoxicated by the ambience, being surrounded by fellow members of our tribe, poring through bins, stumbling upon old favorites or making new discoveries. Same reasons why we vinyl junkies can’t let go. For classical music fans, multiply everything I just said by two. Or five. Or ten. Mark Berry’s Naxos Blog has some interesting comments about what retailers in Philadelphia and elsewhere are doing to fill the classical void. Sample grab:

“At the same time, retailers seem to be expending more energy on classical, perhaps due to the SoundScan rise but also to fill the hole left in major market areas by the demise of Tower Records. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlier this month that national chain FYE has made classical music a priority in its new store in the space previously occupied by Tower, moving its 11,000 CD and DVD titles to the main floor and committing to growing the section. Of course, a part of this collection is crossover material but, as writer Peter Dobrin points out, there is still plenty for the core classical “afficianado” and fan of local classical artists.

Snarky aside: If you didn’t know that Koch had a significant classical catalog you’d never know it by their website. Their classical listings are “below the fold” on their home page, category 13 out of 13 music categories, coming on the heels of “Dance, Electronica & New Age,” “Jazz,” “Gospel,” “Country,” “Kinks Reissues,” and “Broadway Productions and Show Recordings.”

Living Beethovens

The consistently interesting conductor Marin Alsop‘s debut season as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s new Music Director promises to be one of the most interesting seasons in Bawlmur in years. Tim Smith in today’s Baltimore Sun has all the details. Sample grab:
“With cheap seats, conversations with high-profile composers and programming that includes a CSI-style forensics exploration of Beethoven next season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will challenge two of the most common complaints about classical music – that it’s too expensive and too old-fashioned. As part of a strategy unveiled yesterday to bolster attendance, the BSO will reduce the average subscription cost to classical and pops programs by 40 percent. New and current subscribers to the BSO’s 2007-2008 season, the inaugural season of music director Marin Alsop, will pay only $25 per concert for seats anywhere in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, including the usually pricey box seats.”

CSI business aside (which may be a little gimmicky), what caught my eye was Alsop’s “Living Beethovens” initiative – putting some of today’s most accomplished contemporary composers on programs cheek-by-jowl with ol’ Ludwig himself – and even inviting the composers to conduct! So, for 25 bucks a pop, you’ll be able to see John Adams conduct both his own works, as well as Beethoven’s 7th Symphony – a terrific idea. 17 contemporary compositions in all, by the likes of Adams, Tan Dun, and Aaron Jay Kernis. I like what Marin said to the Sun:

For Alsop, the aim of mixing “standard repertoire with something new is to hear the old in a different light. It’s like seeing a Rembrandt next to a Jackson Pollock.”

Up off the Canvas, PT II: The Classical Comeback?

il Divo: the future of classical music? From Slate comes an article about the surprising sales of Classical Music recordings in the last year. The lede is attention-getting: “Is classical music—a genre that has spent a seeming eternity on the commercial skids—staging a comeback? That’s the buzz on Nielsen SoundScan’s 2006 report card, which listed classical as the year’s fastest-growing musical genre. In an otherwise dreary year, sales of classical albums—a figure that includes CDs, LPs, and downloaded albums—increased by 22.5 percent, or 3.57 million units. That put the genre way ahead of such laggards as jazz (down 8.3 percent), alternative (down 9.2 percent), and rap (down 20.7 percent).” Holy Cow – up 22-plus-percent? What’s going on here? Are those Christopher O’Riley-plays-Radiohead CDs and New York Philharmonic iTunes downloads making that much of a difference? Well, yes, they are…a little bit. Classical musicians and organizations have gotten a lot savvier about the Net. But the vast amount of that growth is coming from a change in what the industry counts as “classical.” For years Billboard has maintained two charts: “Classical” and “Classical Crossover” (often as related as “jazz” is to “smooth jazz”) – and in 2006 Nielsen SoundScan (the back-end data collector of Billboard and a whole bunch of other folks) simply rolled ’em together. So: Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and Pierre Boulez are in the same category as Andrea Bocelli, Il Divo, and Josh Groban. And the latter three, who all released albums in 2006, combined for more than 4.6 million units of sales last year – just about the same margin of overall growth in the genre. Hmmm… But there a couple of nuggets worth paying attention to: Bocelli, Groban et al appeal most especially to women 36-50 years old – and most classical programmers aren’t realing paying attention to them as a demographic group. Two that are are Classic FM in the UK (who just happen to be the most popular classical radio station in the world), and WBKK in Albany, NY – a fascinating attempt at programming a classical public radio station a little differently. Worth a listen. (Full disclosure: WBKK PD Christopher Wienk is a colleague and RoeDeo‘s webmaster – doesn’t change the fact that it’s a fascinating experiment.)

Nugget No. 2 is the Songs from the Labryinth album by Sting …his hyper-produced interpretations of 17th-century lute master John Dowland. Turns out that was the biggest-selling “true” classical recording of 2006 – and tonight you can watch him do his Dowland thing on PBS. Bully for him – and if he does any Dowland during the upcoming Police reunion tour, double bully. But will that actually help fortysomethings (like that aforementioned Il Divo Demo) really discover Dowland? If only the album were better – and Sting sang “Flow My Tears” with the same conviction as he sings “King of Pain.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, the Guardian, the L.A. Times, etc. all loved it. I’m more in tune with Timothy Jarrett at, there are vocal lines that sound as though they’re sung through dentures. Worse, there’s no variation to the vocal lines: the performances are note-note-note, with little or no vocal inflection and no phrasing. Then there’s the overdubbing. Awkward as the solo lines are, they sound like sheer genius compared to the same voice in two part harmony.

Up Off The Canvas (or, The Other Shoe Drops)

All right, it was a big deal to me, but not many other folks paid much attention to the news that I wrote about on Day One– Bonneville’s “Yankee Swop” of its frequencies with Entercom, meaning a likely sayonara for classically-formatted KDFC in San Francisco. Sure enough, the other shoe dropped today here in DC – as of 8 pm on Monday, Jan. 22, Bonneville’s WGMS (103.9) will move down the dial to WETA (90.9), effectively ending the latter station’s less-than-successful run as a news-and-information station. It’s a complicated deal, all right – the Washington Post reports that no money will change hands, but that WETA will get from Bonneville the WGMS call letters (to be applied to its repeater station in Hagerstown, MD) , 15,000- CD record library, and even its program director, Jim Allison.

But…wait! Bonneville is not selling to Snyder and Red Zebra at all…at 3 PM today they flipped to a Jack-like oldies format called George104. I promised rants in the title: Here are a couple from DCRTV:

“… a pair of rimshot signals (Waldorf and Frederick). “Well, at least it’s low overhead,” a local radio observer tells DCRTV. Pretty much a CD player in the back of the co-owned WTOP newsroom, says another. It’s kind of sad to watch Joel Oxley and Jim Farley slowly lose their minds, says yet another. Of course, it could be an “extended stunt” until Redskins owner Dan Snyder finally decides to sign the papers and buy the station.

Bonneville’s take:

Both sides agreed it made sense for their stations and their listeners. This saves classical music in this market and arguably puts it in a better place than it is now.

– Joel Oxley, Bonneville Senior VP

You bet it does – WGMS enjoyed fairly consistent ratings (hovering between 5th and 11th in the market) until it got shoved off of its longtime frequency of 103.5 one year ago (collateral damage from the “Washington Post Radio” deal) and wound up on the much less attractive spots of 103.9 and 104.1). At 90.9, WETA’s signal is one of the best in the entire DC Metro area, with 75,000 watts and a repeater in Hagerstown, MD (that’s the one that will be re-christened WGMS-FM.

Funny, for all of the talk (and I’m as guilty as anyone) these days about New Media and the levelling of the playing field in the online world, size – and positions – still matters. It was the truly wretched signal of the Redskins’s radio stations (a/k/a Triple X Radio) that got this whole ball rolling in the first place. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of how radio works would have been able to tell you that choosing a 1000-watt station that drops to 250 watts at night to as your metro DC flagship for the Redskins was going to be a trail of tears. You also knew that the stakes were too high here in football-crazed DC for that situation to go on for more than one season. (Ironically, the format change comes one year to the day that Snyder bought his three new toys).

The new “official” ID for the stations will be “Classical WETA 90.9 FM Washington and WGMS 89.1 FM Hagerstown.”


The same winds of change are blowing across the classical-music landscape at the CBC. Witness today’s announcement about the program changes in their classical channel, CBC Radio Two. I’ll have more to say about this a little later, after I get back from participating in tomorrow’s Panel Discussion at the Arts Presenters conference in NYC. Moderator Bill Reichblum of a very interesting Vermont-based organization called KadmusArts has already been blogging on the subject…

Day One

Yet one more blogstar (okay, supporting cast?) to join the billions and billions twinkling away in the firmament. But an interesting dose of news to start the day: Bonneville, the major radio-chain owned by the Church of Latter-Day Saints, has announced a “station swap” with Entercom, another media giant, essentially trading their three San Francisco frequencies for EIGHT in Seattle and Cincinnati. Why it’s big news to me is that the “swop” (as longtime Yankees would call it) involves what has long been the “jewel in the crown” of commercial classical-music frequencies – KDFC. With no public-radio competition in classical music in the Bay Area, KDFC has been a long-time ratings champ, even hitting No. 1 *overall* in the market — unheard of for classical stations! And that’s doubtless one of the reasons, perhaps why Bonneville is getting 8 stations while losing only three.

It also could be telegraphing the next punch from Bonneville – that they will indeed dump the SECOND classical “cash cow” in the business — WGMS in Washington, DC — and get out of the classical broadcasting business. WGMS’ sale to Redskins owner Dan Snyder has been rumored and talked-about for six weeks now; but when word appeard in the press that Snyder was so desperate to buy a decent station for his Redskins he was willing to pay 50% above market value, the deal suddenly cooled. Look for it to heat up again – fast.

Here’s the press release about the story: