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.