Required Reading – The Well-Tempered Web

In the Oct. 22 issue of the New Yorker you’ll find
a Critic At Large piece called “The Well-Tempered Web” – in essence, a Postcard from the Brave New Media World, written by Alex Ross. There’s a reason Ross is at the top of the list on my blogroll….this is one of the best, most stylishly written and comprehensive snapshots of what’s happening with classical music online, and its implications for the future. Ross writes about a lot of the things I’ve been trying to see and describe in this space, though, in my experience, the scenario is not quite as rosy as he paints. Sample grab:

Classical-music culture on the Internet is expanding at a sometimes alarming pace. When I started my blog, I had links to seven or eight like-minded sites. Now I find myself part of a jabbering community of several hundred blogs, operated by critics, composers, conductors, pianists, double-bassists, oboists (I count five), artistic administrators, and noted mezzo-sopranos (Joyce DiDonato writes under the moniker Yankee Diva). After a first night at the Met, opera bloggers chime inwith opinions both expert and eccentric, recalling the days when critics from a dozen dailies, whether Communist or Republican or Greek, lined up to extoll Caruso. Beyond the blogs are the Internet radio stations; streaming broadcasts from opera houses, orchestras, new-music ensembles; and Web sites of individual artists. There is a new awareness of what is happening musically in every part of the world. A listener in Tucson or Tokyo can virtually attend opening night at the Bayreuth Festival and listen the following day to a première by a young British composer at the BBC Proms.

Those who see the dawning of a new golden age should bear in mind the “Snakes on a Plane” rule: things invariably appear more important on the Internet than they are in the real world. Classical music has experienced waves of technological euphoria in the past: the Edison cylinder, radio, the LP, and the CD were all hailed as redeeming godsends for a kind of music that has always struggled to find its place in American culture. At the end of such bouts of giddiness, classical music somehow always winds up back where it started, in a state of perpetual fret.

Thanks, Alex. I’ll go back to fretting now. I think there’s still a critical missing link having to do with music education (or lack thereof) and the general broader cultural awareness of events outside of the roar of the pop-culture surf, which is what’s driving the UTunes: Music 1.01 project.

Ross also makes a marvelous point about the utterly transparent online accessibility of arguably the most inaccessible of all composers….Arnold Schoenberg. Throwing copyright concerns to the winds, the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna has created a transparent, robust, and comprehensive site dedicated to the inventor of “twelve-tone” music, a man some (like John Adams, f’irnstance) to have led classical music down a 75-yeard spiritual dead-end.

On the site, you can read immaculate digital reproductions of Schoenberg’s correspondence, listen to his complete works on streaming audio, examine his designs for various inventions and gadgets (including a typewriter for musical notation), and follow links to YouTube videos of him playing tennis.

And there’s this trenchant “deep catalog” observation:

Classical music, with its thousand-year back catalogue, has the longest tail of all. In Naxos’s case, thirty to forty per cent of its digital sales in the U.S. come from albums downloaded four times a month or less. Thus, a not insignificant portion of the company’s revenue comes from titles that, by Justin Timberlake standards, don’t exist

Required reading, if you care about classical music.


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.”