Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why Classical Music Needs Spotify

"There's a lot of talk these days about reinventing classical music. Or maybe just reinventing its marketing, but in any case doing something to make it come alive -- and assure its survival -- in an age of O.J. Simpson and Madonna."

That is the first paragraph of Greg Sandow's brilliant article, Why Classical Music Needs Rock & Roll, dates from 1996, which seems to be a long long time ago. But the anxiety over the supposedly dying classical music hasn't changed for a much longer time. To make that passage relevant in the 1920s, all you need to do is to change the last two objects to Jazz and gramophone; 1960s, Beatles and TV; and 2010s, smartphone and Spotify.

I agree with Alex Ross that all these debates over whether classical music is dead or not, is a waste of time, because it will never change anything. Entrepreneurs and technicians couldn't care less about these concerns, when they set out their business or research plans. And when they determine a new distribution method or technology is more convenient than the previous one, therefore more people will adopt it and more profit (for them) will be generated, they will never step back because of the potential harm it could do to art. Deal with it.

And there's a lot of talk these days about the potential harm Spotify could do, or already have done, on the music industry, or even music itself.

Some of them, like Walter Benjamin did 75 years ago, argue that when art was rendered too easily accessible, its “aura” was lost. I partly agree with that, and I'm by no means a tech enthusiast (I find H.P. Lovecraft view of the universe more likeable than Stephen Hawking's). But if you see this from a historical perspective, the “devaluation” of art is inevitable, and for centuries art constantly gained new values by taking advantage of new technology, so we are not living in a culture desert now, after everything that came after the industrial revolution.

The rise of bourgeois introduced classical music to a much wider audience, but at the same time, screwed landed aristocrats, so they could no longer afford (not only financially, but also emotionally) to support artists like Beethoven on their own, or to hire Haydn with a full orchestra. People may argue: “I'd rather have one Beethoven other than 100 salon composers.” But sorry, no one can change the times when the times have changed. Art will deal with new spiritual conflicts caused by new technology, and hopefully, flourish in new ground made possible by it, like it did in the past centuries. I consider myself a very cynical man, but I believe in the self-renewing capacity of art. Otherwise I cannot think of anything that human beings can lean on.

I'm also optimistic about Spotify's impact on the classical music industry. According to the much-quoted article by Mode founder Brian Brandt, Spotify's payment to his label is about 1/3 penny per stream, in June 2011. Looks bleak, yes? Here's my take on it:

Mr. Brandt also said the profit from one CD sold is about $3.

If 10 users listen to a 10-track Mode album on Spotify for 10 times, Spotify pays Mode:

$0.0033*10*10*10=$3.3 Looks better? Hard to believe? Read on.

"We agree with Prof. Bartok that a smartphone would save us much trouble"

Where do the three 10s come from? 10 tracks per album is a legitimate guess, there are albums featuring long tracks, like the 4-track Xenakis quartets recording, but there are also albums with many shorter tracks, like the 25-track Berio's Works For Voices disk. And I think listening to an album 10 times is an understatement. For most music fans, when they buy a CD, they probably listen to it many more times during the time they own that CD. Please note that CD’s lifespan is said to be decades, in theory your grandchildren could inherit your CDs 60 years from now (though by that time it might be harder to find a CD player than find a 78 rpm record player today). So 10 plays for an album is also a safe assumption, IMO. If people don’t listen to an album at least 10 times in years or even decades, I see little possibility, or reason that they would, or should buy it. I know, there are classical veterans who own thousands of CDs and never listened to most of them more than a couple of time. But I don't think that kind of behavior is what the industry should depend on, and it's not environment friendly either.

Then we come to the real question: is it possible to get 10 times or more people to listen to an album, than those who buy CDs? I'm not a classical music marketer, all I can say is, at least there's hope, and I see more hope in getting more people to listen to the music, than luring people into buying CDs again, which is beating on a dead horse.

Nielsen SoundScan reports that for the first half of 2011, a total of 3.8 million classical albums were sold, compares to 2010 it shows a 13% growth. Looks encouraging? Not to me.

Lady Antebellum, one pop act alone, sold the same amount of albums in 2010.

Talking about market size, if we say $8 per album (real figure may be lower. I have no doubt that a large part of the sales were from heavily discount boxsets, like the 170-CD Brilliant complete Mozart edition, sells at $134), the market size of physical sales of classical music in recorded from in half a year, is merely $30M. Halo, one game from Microsoft, grossed $200M in 24 hours.

If we still hope that all the great composers as a whole should at least be as relevant as one pop act, or one video game, think hard about how you can make use of the new technology. If you don't, most likely the new generation will ignore you and your great music just like you ignore the technology they cherish.

Subscription services, like Spotify, make it possible for the first time in history that a listener can listen to any music on-demand without “extra cost”. Seize the opportunity and market your music accordingly. Many Aphex Twin fans will listen to Alarm Will Sound plays Aphex Twin, though most of them may not buy it. Give them a chance to let them know about this music, because that’s all it takes for them to listen to it now. What about Mahler, Bach or Perotin, should we also market them as new hipsters? No I don't thinks so. But I don't think it's too hard to get enough people to listen to the core repertoire either. MTT's 17-CD Mahler cycle sold 130,000 copies in the past ten years, and was considered a great success. That’s only 7,650 copies per CD. I believe there are many more people who actually attended MTT's Mahler concert, how hard could it be, to get those people listen to this music, "for free"? Ask the salesmen which is easier, handing out 10 "free" samplers or selling one unit? Many will choose the former, I think.

Of course there are also new problems. In the past the labels sold a bunch of CDs upon initial releases, covered their cost so they can keep on making new music. But now, as I stated above, it might take years or even decades for enough people to listen to those music enough times for the labels to generate an equivalent profit. (so maybe streaming services should pay advance to music makers?) And when everyone starts to seek for more listeners in an equally “free” environment, the competition could become nasty. I don’t claim to know the answers, but I believe the future, as always, lies in the hands of people who are brave enough to embrace it.


  1. Some interesting points. My own listening is broad, rather than deep. In other words, I don't have many CDs that I've listened to 10 times or more. I'm one of those who buys multiple versions of my favorite classical works, or lots of music by bands I really like. (The best example is the Grateful Dead, of whom I have bought dozens of official releases of live concerts; right now, I'm listening to 2/28/69, from a limited edition box set of a run at the Fillmore in early 1969. Bought 6 years ago, the play counts in iTunes are 6-8 for each track.)

    I think long-term amortization is necessary, but is deceptive. You can't predict what you'll be listening to in 20 years, or whether you'll even care about the music you bought yesterday in future decades.

    Back in the day, when I only had a couple hundred LPs, I certainly listened to them 10 or 20 times in the first few months after buying them. It's true that the ubiquity of music has changed that, and the fact that so much classical music is available at such low costs (such as Brilliant Classics box sets, or even box sets from major labels). So curiosity leads me to acquire more, and listen to each one less. This may be par for the course among music fans, especially those who branch out after discovering the kind of relationship you mention above (Aphex Twins > Alarm Will Sound > ?).

  2. I also believe that music tastes evolve among engaging listeners. To me that makes streaming services even more reasonable than contents ownership. In the past we have to sell or give away the CDs we don't like anymore, now we just delete a playlist and subscribe to a new one.

    I think it's not bad to music itself, if the labels have to maintain a large number of active listeners (for long-term amortization), other than selling some heavily marketed CDs as an one-off deal.

  3. Thanks for writing this. Over ten years ago, I told everyone I knew that CD's were dead tech, and most people disagreed with me. The latest generation of kids, plugged into their iPods, will look upon CD's the way we now view cassettes. My latest prediction is that hard-drives will, for the most part, become a thing of the past, and cloud technology will save the music industry from piracy (if it puts in the effort to think long-term and be saved). Of course, David Bowie was predicting the same thing way back in 2002, when he postulated that music would soon become like a utility, where the listener pays a fee and turns it on like a tap. Despite my opinions on CD's, even I thought "Huh?" when I first read that, but lo and behold, with more and more people connecting to the net and streaming via portable devices, his model is becoming an inevitable reality. No one can accuse Bowie of failing to look to the future.

    I couldn't agree more about the pay-per-play model being viable -- and actually, a whole lot more fair than the old model, in which you could potentially buy a CD, play it once, and hate it. Thinking of the music in my collection, it's perhaps a little painful to me that the recordings I play again and again receive the same amount of revenue from me as those which I'm so embarrassed to admit I own, I won't even resell them on eBay.

    One little correction: "$0.33" ... I think you mean 0.33c or $0.0033?

  4. A few things to keep in mind is that CD labels like Naxos are already heavily discounting their performers. Performer deals typically involve a one time grant of 300 copies of the CD's. Also, new music labels actually function almost uniformly as vanity projects. They may get some funding from state funding sources, but they're generally run by the same artists that they promote. Mode is an entirely different project - but frankly, they know they're going to lose money, just like the great book publishers of the past knew it. It's a love thing.

    What most new music labels are afraid of is the fact that they will no longer have the clout of a 'label release.' A new release on a prominent new music label is considered a career-making move - even though it's functioning for all practical reasons as a DIY. When you actually find out how few CD's most labels are selling anyways, any differentiation is moot. The clout allows them to give their stuff to NPR and the other American arts promotions networks as seemingly non-DIY stuff.

    That is how labels that are essentially DIY like Innova (where you have to put up the initial $6000 yourself) have succeeded in creating this type of clout - even thought it's purely DIY. Their promotional materials, catalogs suggest a real label, but the composer pays for the release.

    The conceit that it's about loss of sales is pure BS. It's about loss of clout pure and simple.

    I've refused to pay to press CD's since the streaming Internet scene began as a number of composers such as Dennis Bathory-Kitsz and others have. It's not as good for radio play, but the radio stations need to get with the program. Spotify is the future, and the best music is going to win. Bye bye clout.

  5. @Mormolyke, thanks for the reminder, just corrected. I wrote the post up on a whim, in addition to mistakes I also left out some points I wanted to make.

    Your mention of Bowie brought back memories to me. I suddenly remembered that, around year 2000 ('hours...'), when internet was still a novelty in my place, I opened his official site, and was astonished by its multimedia design (I recall that he was doing something like fans remix contest there). Yes at that time we still use multimedia to describe computers with speakers. It was dropped shortly, because multimedia was what computer suppose to be. I think we'll soon drop the "smart" in smartphones.

    @Jeff, Thanks for the manifesto! I was wondering about the sales of niche classical labels myself. If MTT's Mahler only sells 7.5k copies, what's the point to sell, I guess, a few hundreds disks of new music? If the composers really want to be heard, I think they will try something new, at least in addition to CDs.

    My OP is relatively conservative, because I'm not calling for a revolution here:) I just thought Spotify could serve the music industry well if they really adopt the new idea and do something to help more users to enjoy music on the new platform, not half-heatedly taking Spotify as just another pawn in the game. I worked in the music industry before, and I know many of the high rank officers care for nothing but their pensions (at least in my country), they simply won't consider changing, unless they were forced to. In that sense, the collapse of the industry actually offered the music makers and fans a good chance. I hope the industry don't fail this time.

  6. "I couldn't agree more about the pay-per-play model being viable -- and actually, a whole lot more fair than the old model, in which you could potentially buy a CD, play it once, and hate it."

    But that's _exactly_ what the music (and book, and movie) industry wants: they want you to buy something without knowing whether you like it. The ability to sample music, with Spotify or other services, means they are going to lose a lot of sales. Heck, I listened to a few albums on Spotify that I was thinking of buying, and decided not to. On the other hand, I just bought a 3-CD set of Alfred Brendel playing Liszt - nothing new, just a selection of his favorite recordings - without even listening to previews, because it's Alfred Brendel.

  7. While I've found the quantity of classical records on Spotify impressive (although why can't they have a search by composer option?), the quality of the music on Spotify is not great, and while this may be acceptable for pop music, a lot is lost in classical.

    I've been comparing the sound quality between my paid Spotify account and my cd's (Mutter's Berg Violin Concerto, Yo-Yo Ma's Bach Cello Suites) and the sound in Spotify is rather poor and opaque. Additionally, the absence of a seamless track change can be very disruptive.


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