Classical Music Is Dying. No It’s Not. Yes It Is. No It Isn’t.

There have been articles proclaiming the death of classical music for decades; some even back in the 19th century. A recent article in Slate – Requiem: Classical music in America is dead – brings back that evergreen trope.

It’s partly right, partly wrong.

One of the main takeaways from that article was the fact that classical record sales in the US have dropped to 2.8% of total sales.[1] Back in the 1990s, classical music sold more than 10% of records, but that may be skewed: Ii’s likely that a lot of classical listeners were replacing LPs with CDs, and that period has passed.[2]

However, that 2.8% figure is a rise from the 2012 figure of 2.4%, which, itself, saw a 21% drop from the previous year. It also represents a 4.9% increase in unit sales.

But this is all moot.

There are long-term indicators that suggest that the decline is real. There are fewer classical radio stations; fewer people attend classical concerts; and the average age of those attending is increasing. However, I wonder if “new music” is being ignored. Are contemporary classical releases and concerts counted as “classical?” Everywhere you read about how the young are attending these concerts; but is it enough?

From my point of view, as one who buys (a lot of) classical records, it is a golden age. Many record labels are now selling their recordings directly, making them easier to buy in both physical and digital formats. I can download a new album in minutes from labels in many countries. There is also a plethora of bargain-priced box sets, from both specialist labels[3] and major labels. I can buy boxes of 50 CDs from a major label for less than $100, and often closer to $60 or so. I’m able to fill in gaps in my collection, discover new works, and listen to a broader variety of music for much less than I used to. In some cases, a box set – say 20 to 30 discs – costs less than I paid for a single three-disc opera recording a decade ago.

Of course, this means that, if I spend the same amount of money on records each year, there is less to spread around per disc. Many of these box sets have been amortized ages ago, but there’s not a lot of income from these sets to finance new recordings.

Also, look at what counts as classical music. In this week’s Billboard charts, only three of the top 25 recordings are really classical. Several are by the classical equivalents of boys bands, by watered-down classical performers like Andre Rieu, or by borderline-pop singers such as Andrea Bocelli.

It’s interesting to compare with Slate’s 2007 article, Is classical music making a comeback?. In 2006, classical sales increased by 22.5%; but much of these sales were “the success of three artists whom highbrow fans often view with disdain: Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, and Il Divo.”

Classical music has had its ups and downs over the years, and this past year’s dip may be offset by next year’s increase.

Update: Read Andy Doe’s rebuttal to the Slate article on the Proper Discord blog.

  1. PDF here Nielsen can’t even get the genre’s name right: they call it “classic” in the section on page two showing the total share of album sales.  ↩

  2. And the music industry certainly misses this golden age where they got people to replace much of their music collection.  ↩

  3. Such as Brilliant Classics, which licenses content from other labels, and repackages it, selling it at very low per-disc prices.  ↩

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8 replies
  1. bj4wp says:

    Thanks Kirk for sharing your thoughts on this topic, and some valuable statistics. I am left wondering, however, how these statistics compare to Europe – where most of the classical download sales websites originate. Having been to Europe many times over the years, I’ve come to realize Europeans values ‘classical’ things of all kinds, far more than Americans. Just look at how important it is to them to preserve their architecture. Since I understand you are living there, how do the European ‘stats’ line up with our American ‘stats’ when it comes to classical music?

    On another note, would you mind listing the classical download sites you’ve discovered? Some of my favorites are: eClassical, The Classical Shop, and Qobuz.

    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      The BPI’s 2012 report (PDF here) shows that classical music is about 3.3% of the total in 2011. The market share for previous years is very stable, ranging from 3.2% to 3.7%.

      As for download sites, good question. I’ll write up a blog post later or tomorrow.

        • bj4wp says:

          Hey Kirk, quickly reading over this very informative BPI report got me wondering how much of the decline in classical sales is being influenced (like the rest of the music market) by the fairly dramatic increase in streaming music services. It would be interesting to, somehow, match these two trends together. Personally, I think more and more young people are wondering why they should purchase anything, when they can pay $10 a month and stream everything …

          • Kirk McElhearn says:

            I’m not sure that classical music listeners have really embraced streaming. Unless you mean that perhaps people who bought a couple of classical albums a year aren’t buying any now, because of streaming. That’s possible. But when you look at the BPI report, the classical market share is very stable, unlike the US figures.

            • bj4wp says:

              Actually, I’m thinking of European sites like the excellent one Qobuz which offers – 320kb streaming, with an option (admittedly expensive) to stream CD quality music. I know the numbers in the States seem to indicate mass music is moving towards streaming. Which, unfortunately, will likely decrease music quality and profit margins for musicians.

  2. Dave Scocca says:

    Re: “Back in the 1990s, classical music sold more than 10% of records, but that may be skewed: Ii’s likely that a lot of classical listeners were replacing LPs with CDs, and that period has passed.”

    I agree that was a golden age for the record companies, but is there any evidence that classical listeners were doing proportionately more of this LP-to-CD replacement than were non-classical listeners? If anything, classical listeners shifted to CDs earlier and did more of their replacement in the 1980s rather than the 1990s.


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