Chances are you could ask any classical highbrow what's killing their precious sliver of the recording industry, and they'll immediately scream, "The INTERNET!" But few classical music listeners are aware that the very monster they endlessly bitch about is shaping up to be the best way yet to keep their art in the public ear — and recruit new audiences.
Doom and gloom scenarios aside, the only thing the internet is destroying is the way music has been produced and distributed over the past half-century — and old ways die hard. The digital revolution has democratized the time-honored avenues of supply and demand. Pop, of course, has led the way. But now the classical end of the business is scrambling onto the web-based bandwagon.
Just last year, the classical arm of BBC was stunned when they tallied nearly 1.5 million downloads (they expected 50K, tops) of Beethoven symphonies after their broadcast week devoted to him. Musicians of every ilk — composers, conductors, star soloists, chamber groups, orchestras, and opera companies — are adding download features to their websites. Fresh examples pop up almost daily. They're expanding their fan bases and selling their stuff beyond all expectations.
In an era where archaic union rules and high recording costs have throttled the flow of new recordings from major orchestras (especially in America), the internet has gone from bad guy to emerging savior. LSO Live, The London Symphony Orchestra's pioneering web enterprise, does a brisk business peddling podcasts, their growing catalog of fabulous live recordings, and even conventional CDs to be sold in stores or by mail order. Downloading fees range from downright cheap to reasonable.
Prestige labels like Universal's Deutsche Gramophon have teamed up with former foes like Apple's iTunes, where you can now find thousands of their classical titles. As a result, classical downloads have lately accounted for a butt-kicking 12 percent of iTunes' overall volume — compared to a paltry, longstanding 3 percent in retail stores.
Fringe benefits include fresh access to rare out-of-print recordings. And the market isn't limited to long-time classical nuts: Naxos.com reports growing sales of their educational products — like their A to Z of Classical Music, suggesting the growing emergence of new listeners who never got around to taking music appreciation in college. I could go on and on.
Classical downloading still has its frustrations. Many sites need to refine their software and data-entry practices to handle the complex information files that come with the music, and most MP3 players aren't designed to handle classical details. Download John Doe playing Mozart piano sonatas, and it might register in your iPod under composer: Doe, and artist: Mozart. And whether it's a sonata or a symphony, it's often listed as a "song." Then there are the fidelity issues: you can download a straight CD that sounds nearly as good as anything off the shelf, though standard bit rate MP3 sound quality isn't yet good enough for many classical audiophiles.
But hang in there, because things are getting better. The many orchestral sites and label sources like Naxos.com know what they're doing, and even the general music sites like iTunes are learning fast.
The main casualty of all this is the CD industry as we know it. Sales of conventional CDs are plummeting, and retailers are folding like a pair of deuces. Some are adapting to the information age, hanging on thanks to innovative marketing schemes, like my employer, Millennium Music, and its used-CD-for-iPod trade deals. The store is now bursting with prime used inventory, reducing its dependence on overvalued new stock. Used CDs — still the cheapest iPod fodder — sell like hotcakes, including online.
Like it or not, this is the future of classical music. My advice to the technophobic classical malcontents of the world is this: get a good PC. And be patient while a fledgling industry learns how to cure its growing pains. You won't believe the classical richness and variety that bloom more brightly with every passing day — thanks to the internet and the dawning digital revolution.