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Bach isn’t dead, he’s relocating

A report on digital downloads finds that the fastest-growing music genre is classical

JAIME J. WEINMAN June 25 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Bach isn’t dead, he’s relocating

A report on digital downloads finds that the fastest-growing music genre is classical

JAIME J. WEINMAN June 25 2007

Bach isn’t dead, he’s relocating

music

A report on digital downloads finds that the fastest-growing music genre is classical

JAIME J. WEINMAN

What kind of music is about to dominate the online world? It’s not country music or even calypso. Earlier this year, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) published a report on the impact of digital downloads, and found that in 2006, “Classical music was the fastest-growing music genre in the U.S., growing by 23 per cent. There have been exceptional digital sales on particular classical titles.” The death of classical recording has been announced so often that this past year brought a book on the subject, Norman Lebrecht’s The Life and Death of Classical Music. But maybe classical music isn’t dying, just relocating to the Internet.

The classical record industry was built on the old-fashioned disc format: whether 78s, LPs or CDs, classical buyers wanted solid items that they could take home and show off. But now, as the IFPI’s report indicates, an increasing number of listeners get their Bach the way they get their rock: from iTunes and other downloading sites. Also, videosharing sites have become an archive for great singers and instrumentalists of the past: when the great Russian cellist Mistlav Rostropovich died earlier this year, his online obituarists were able to link to black-and-white YouTube clips of Rostropovich making music.

None of this means that the Internet is dominating the classics at this point; Mark Berry, publicist for the classical record company Naxos of America, points out that “80 per cent or more of our business is still CDs and DVDs, and that’s still true for the industry as a whole.” But the computerized classics have brought in new listeners who don’t buy CDs and DVDs or attend classical concerts: young people whose taste in music may not

be “classical” in the usual sense. Many of the recordings being downloaded are “crossover” recordings mixing elements of classical and pop, like Andrea Bocelli, who is considered ‘classical” mostly because he’s Italian.

The Internet may also be allowing these downloaders to explore great and unfamiliar music. “We get the two extremes,” Berry says. “We had an album called The Very Best of Mozart and 85 per cent of them were sold online. On the other hand, some of the fringe composers sell well online compared to CD. People who want to try an obscure composer can download one or two tracks and see if they like it.” These people might never have gone to the trouble of buying a CD of unfamiliar music, but they’re happy to use the Internet to get introduced to Mozart.

Yet even as these companies pursue this market of young, curious Web surfers, they risk alienating the core customers who are still buying CDs and DVDs. One problem is that the Internet has traditionally offered inferior sound quality, and classical music buyers tend to be audiophiles (such innovations as stereo, surround sound and digital sound were popular with classical collectors long before they caught on in the world of pop). YouTube still doesn’t allow users to upload in stereo, and many digital downloads are encrusted with a layer of copy-protection

that prevents piracy but degrades the sound. Pop fans can put up with that, but classical fans can’t. “It’s an older demographic,” says Eric Feidner, president of the online classical music retailer Arkivmusic.com. “When they listen to music, they listen on stereo systems, not on an iPod or a mobile device. So they’re going to notice the sound quality.”

There are other reasons why older Mozart fans may not want to adapt to the iPod era. Classical music collectors not only like good sound, they buy records as a package: not just music, but notes, lyrics and cover art. (In the past, some labels even got away with charging higher prices for more attractive covers and elaborate booklets.) When Feidner launched the “ArkivCD” program to make out-of-print compact discs available on demand, he found that his customers insisted on having photographs and essays included with the discs, even if they had to pay more to get them: “It’s about getting involved with the music; there might be something more to learn about what you’re listening to.”

Still, companies can’t resist trying to build on the new and growing online market. Most recently, the oldest classical company, EMI, announced that it will drop the copy-protecting digital rights management (DRM), allowing classical recordings to be downloaded in better quality (but at a higher price). That’s the future for classical recording companies: finding new ways to sell music online, while CD and DVD buyers keep them afloat. M