Classical record sales just keep on falling

Classical record sales just keep on falling


norman lebrecht

April 23, 2015

The latest weekly Nielsen stats from the US are deeply discouraging.

The highest selling album – CDs and downloads combined – was Andrea Bocelli with fewer than 400 sales.

The next two, still above 300 units, were the Benedictines of Mary and Hilary Hahn’s new DG Mozart concerto.

Below these three chart-toppers, no classical record cleared 200 sales last week.

And the May issue of Gramophone is so light on ads it looks anorexic.


hilary hahn


  • william osborne says:

    In 2013, an album of the Benedictines of Mary reached number 1 on the classical Billboard charts, displacing “Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album.” Apparently the public needed something a bit more…er…black and white.

  • Robert Garbolinski says:

    Reduce the prices!

    • Stephen says:

      Yes, indeed. Whilst there are many cheap multi-CD boxed sets, prices of individual CDs have rocketed, judging by prices on Amazon – often as much as 28 euros and more.

    • Peter says:

      No! Ticket prices are high and the demand is there. recordings are actually very cheap, much cheaper (inflation adjusted) than 30 or 40 years ago, MUCH cheaper.
      The problem with selling records in the US is the demolition of the retail structure over the last decade. Classical always was piggy back of the bigger recording industry. Now they go streaming, but the classical audience does not favor that (yet).

      It’s not a problem of price, not a problem of the product either. It’s a problem with the distribution.

  • Richard says:

    its all good. More people are listening more often to more types of music than at any point in history. The lack of revenue hasn’t stopped the production of recordings, it just doesn’t figure in at all as a possible revenue stream. So while streaming itself seems like “the future,” until they figure out a viable income model (get people in the door then jack up the subscription price by 400%) this dire economic condition will remain.

    What I don’t understand is why streaking is extolled as being anything other than a scam and temporary exploitation of copyright law. Soon Apple will use its clout, probably illegally, to force those who don’t want to stream into the pool (they already took the initial step with iTunes Radio).

    So while it looks bad now, it’ll get worse. But these numbers quoted above are misleading. While Bocelli might have only sold 400 albums-in fact millions listened to his music during that time.

    • Robert Holmén says:

      “…While Bocelli might have only sold 400 albums-in fact millions listened to his music during that time.”

      That doesn’t say much for the claim that streaming propels album sales.

    • Matt says:

      Your comment suggests that Apple is on the attack. It is not; it is in retreat (in this area).

      For years they maintained that customers preferred to own music rather thank borrow it. Now, with a steady decrease in sales, they’ve been forced into changing their strategy.

      Apple is not leading the move to streaming, but following a trend.

    • William Safford says:

      Streaming is industry’s attempt to create a business model to compete with the current model of music distribution, which is theft.

      The following is nothing new, but bears repeating.

      For many years, the recording industry made its money, at least in part, by the distribution and sale of recordings: 78s, then LPs, then CDs, with other technologies such as cassette tapes also playing a role.

      Implicit in the sale of, say, an LP, was the assumption that it was for the use of one person or family (excluding radio stations, libraries, etc. for the purposes of this discussion).

      The distribution of copied music was not the rampant issue that it is today, since the quality of duplications of analog recordings degraded with each generation, and distribution was cumbersome. For example, from time to time I made fair use copies of my LPs on cassettes to play in the car, but I could never have made money selling such copies. It was too labor- and time-intensive and expensive for there to be a groundswell of such distribution. (Followers of the Grateful Dead were an exception to the rule, for reasons intrinsic to their listening and music distribution and ownership ethos).

      That model was demolished with the inventions of the personal computer, digital recording, the CD, the recordable CD, the Internet, and MP3 players such as the iPod.

      Now, with digital distribution, one can send or receive copies of music with no degradation in sound quality of the original file (assuming that the music is not reencoded at a lower resolution). These files can be distributed essentially for free, with the tap of a computer key.

      Never mind the fact that doing so breaks the law, and deprives artists and companies of the revenue to which they are legally entitled.

      How can companies compete with wholesale theft and piracy? That’s the riddle that companies are trying to answer.

      I am not defending streaming, but I do want to put it in context.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    I don’t understand how Bocelli album belongs in the classical category.

  • J. says:

    I have some news for you, Norman: EL James sells more books than Proust.

  • Rgiarola says:

    Why someone would by a CD for a price range between 8 and 20 USD, if for 8 USD a month they can listen at any time to the majority of all Cds , through software such Spotify, Grooveshark, Pandora, Deezer etc etc? In a very good quality, available at TV, Sound equipment, Cell Phone, Laptop or any other device with wi-fi. What are the classical music figures at these devices?. I didn’t get Hahn new cd, but I’ve been listen to it entirely more than one time at Spotify Premium.
    Sorry, Compact Disc sounds as piece de resistance from Jurassic times to anyone under 30, and to many above. It doesn’t mean necessarily that classical music is dying, but that the ones still buying CDs are getting a little older.

    • Peter says:

      You are making the case for how stupid the record industry is, throwing away their precious product for almost free. Pure desperation there. Clueless management not knowing even the basics about their product and how to develop that market and distribution channels.

      You can’t run a restaurant offering healthy high quality food, by offering it through 5-$-a-menu-all-you-can-eat buffet prices. The recording industry is run by clueless idiots as far as the trend setting majors are concerned. Period.

  • Dr Peter Lim says:

    Blame technology

  • Jon Parker says:

    Norman, of course you are correct that classical CD sales are historically low. Others have already argued that this is a reflection of changing technology as much as of lack of interest. However, many thousands of classical CDs are in fact sold every week, usually for $20 each, with no-one complaining about the price.

    They are sold at intermission or post-concert in hundreds of concert halls, churches, and other performing venues around the country, especially on weekends. It is routine for artists to bring their own CDs to recitals and orchestral engagements, and for the presenter to have a volunteer sell them, often but not always in conjunction with an autograph session. If the artist has self produced the CDs he/she stands to net $15-20 per CD directly. (Halls vary in what cut they take; some take none.) Of course the artist net is much lower if it is commercially produced.

    It’s relatively rare for concert presenters or artists to bother with the paperwork that gets these sales listed by Nielsen. So we should all have some hope. Everyone still has a CD player in their cars, and it’s not just the oldest concertgoers who purchase them at concerts. These CDs (especially when autographed) are a tangible reminder of a concert enjoyed, as well as being the physical media on which the recording resides.

    • william osborne says:

      Yes, classical musicians sell CDs out of the trunk of the cars while the big pop stars of monopolistic capitalism sell them by the millions. Adorno and Horkheimer’s “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” has lost little of its relevance. Standardized cultural goods manipulate mass society into passivity. The easy pleasures of popular culture, such as Bocelli and the Nuns, render people docile and content, no matter how difficult their economic circumstances. As people accustom themselves to this sort of art, they eventually develop false psychological needs that can only be met and satisfied by the products of the mass media.

      Adorno and Horkheimer noted that the nation state and culture industry will thus attempt to crush any form of art that leads people to genuinely think or dissent. In practice, we see that the USA suppresses the high arts by strongly limiting their funding, and by systemic measures that leave the small amount of funding available under strict, plutocratic control. Classical musicians selling their CDs are thus little more than street vendors pedaling a few hundred CDs a week in a country of 320 million people. Turn on your Bocelli and forget about it…

      • Peter says:

        Wise words, but if wise words were spoken to deaf people, were they actually spoken?

      • William says:

        “In practice, we see that the USA suppresses the high arts by strongly limiting their funding..”

        Funding? Are you talking about government handouts? I miss classical music stations and bookstores, and I dread the disappearance of classical music, but I am adamantly against any subsidies for the arts. They have to make it on their own. If they disappeared, that would be a tragedy, and I would mourn, but maintaining a competitive economy and a free society is more important to me. I don’t want the government to take my money to support what it thinks is good for me. Obama did that with health insurance, That’s one of the reasons Trump was elected.

  • Pamela Brown says:

    With all due respect to Ms. Hahn, whose performances and cds are among my favorites, I wonder if even Mozart considered the possibility that his pieces would be played and recorded ‘as notated’ over 200 years into the future…

  • El Grillo says:

    Didn’t Gidon Kremer already bring this up, when he decided not to partake in Verbier?

    From facebook you can see that:

    Hilary Hahn has had her “competition” to see if you write something that works for her (not listed as such but making anyone browsing through a music store looking for something to play into a “competition”). The result is heralded by its local “Tribune” publication as giving a recital in Chicago pleasing an audience that supposedly usually only responds to a herd of war horses, how many times she’s played the Brahms concerto isn’t listed. But that she’s had a “competition” and a whole herd of pieces is played, that won’t hardly if it all be played ever by anyone else (but they work for her and its a competition); all helping to maintain a personality cult promote marketing and insult horses, apparently.

    Anne Sophie Mutter has been on vacation in the mountains and is going to be at the beach, she is doing cheesecake research (it’s a task but someone has to she says) and she loves hamburgers at Tanglewood, along with going to the Movies and having lots of popcorn. This is art folks, how you maintain a personality cult.

    How you corner a dwindling market. And in the meantime there are a whole “herd” of people that are so turned off by this they are the ones that perhaps are causing the market to dwindle, out of disgust at such marketing ploys they have lost interest; while others corner the market for insecure addicted people looking for well being in image. And there is another “herd” of people that could have produced something without the “varnish.”


    And so we have the ghostly looking preadolescent “opera” singers and the gangs of singers or instrumentalists doing whatever they do (no one has written a piece for revving motorcycles yet) and topping even the fine ladies listed above.

    And then there’s Joshua Bell who says he’s interested in learning to compose and wants to be a better golfer (in the same paragraph) all again going with personality cult forming, as if this is going to materialize this original “great” composition of his that hasn’t seen the light of day. But it sounds good, don’t it?

    And the whole thing is INCREDIBLY sad!

  • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

    1) As I have mentioned before, perhaps the Nielsen numbers [redacted] have little to do with reality.

    2) Reality, as it turns out, is that CD’s should not be considered sources of income for artists, but a means of differentiation. If you sell 5 or 5000 matters less (to the artist) than the fact that HH is one of the 300000000^E qualified violinists who records for DG, deservedly so. Its a barrier of entry for her competition, nothing more.

    3) In spite of the sad dreams of cynics, Labels are still here because they have worked hard to standardize content in order to drive volume, both in physical sales as well as downloads and streaming rights. The business is much smaller now than in the past, as the product has been commoditized, but the overall strategy is working: Pretty much all the consumed music is pop, but in multiple “styles”: rock, classical, jazz. The music world became McDonalds: The entire menu costs $1 – the icecream and the hamburger. The same.

    4) The problem that “classical” has is that such standardization effectively calls for the eradication of the complexities of the art, and thus the very concept “classical” now means “pop music played in old instruments” rather than “The music composed in the past”. Look at Bocelli, 2Cellos, Lindsey Sterling, Etc, to see how vivid and pervasive this trend has become. Even orchestras and performing arts centers need to buy into this meta-meme in order to survive: Star wars at the symphony, Cirque de la Symphonie, David Garrett, etc.

    W. Osborne cites Adorno, which is interesting but it might also be a philosophical extrapolation of a market situation. Following these works is Nobel Prize Winner Vargas Llosa, who discusses this problem for the arts in his book “the civilization of entertainment”.

    The ONLY solution would be to differentiate “classical content” from the stream of “popicized music” and make it a high value service. One day.

    For now, I am afraid that the Sokolov’s of the world will be there to satisfy the curiosity of the aging baby boomers who still consider classical music as an artform. They will be gone in 10-15 years and those left will have a COMPLETELY different concept of what “Classical Music” is. I ponder it will have much more to do with playing madonna on the violin, rather than the music of Beethoven and Mozart. That will be a museum item.

  • Brian Hughes says:

    I must be a Luddite. I’ve not purchased a CD of any kind in months. Most of my classical listening comes via Iowa Public Radio Classical–among the best in the country.

  • David Boxwell says:

    Surely I was not the only American punter to purchase the Bryan Hymel CD spectacular this week; I got all the words in translation, along with pics of the star! (But he’s sighted, and sings French grand opera. . .)

  • Ben says:

    Do the CD sale figures mean anything other than classical music’s reach is contracting to a new supply-demand equilibrium? Does it suggest that U.S. is so uncivilized than Europe, that Americans don’t care about classical music?

    Guess what… during the same week, there are thousands of concert halls across U.S. that sat hundreds and thousands of people. Send me a postcard when the Nelson figure truly means something. 🙂

    (oh … forgot to mention that there are thousands of music schools across U.S. that enroll hundreds of music majors … guess the Classical Music Armageddon may not come soon enough for Norman to announce it in this website)

    • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

      Read my post. The armaggedon is already there. Yes, there were thousands of people this weeK in american concert halls, but chances are they heard some bastardized form of the art of music: pops concerts, film with orchestra, the latest semi-nude popstar soloist or any of the new “outreach trends” that the institutions use to survive and (roll eyes) “attract NEW audiences”. The institutions will survive, the music is already phasing off.

  • Martin Cullingford says:

    Dear Norman,

    Following your final line about Gramophone’s May issue, can I reassure you and your readers that the May issue is our standard size – one that only changes when we increase it to accommodate special sections such as our annual Critics’ Choice and Festival Guide features. Furthermore, advertising took up its usual proportion of the title.

    Kind regards,
    Martin Cullingford
    Editor and Publisher, Gramophone

    • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

      coincidentally ghis week Hello Stage sent an emailblast with the title (im paraphrasing) “Print Advertising in classical music is dead” or “ineffective/outdated”. Havent seen the latest issue yet but would be interested in seeing trends over the past 10 years.

  • Eric Koenig says:

    33 1/3 LP’s ended the age of 78’s. CD’s ended the age of vinyls. MP3’s and iPods may spell the end of the age of CD’s.

  • Andrew Quint says:

    I’m a classical record reviewer and audiophile writer (for Fanfare and The Absolute Sound) and, needless to say, recordings are dear to my heart. But I want to be sure that we’re not confusing CD and download sales with an assessment of the general health of classical music.

    I agree with those who have pointed out that the numbers Norman reports likely low-ball sales; they miss the discs sold at concerts and, more importantly, they ignore streaming, which accounts for most music sales, all genres considered. Even top rock/pop performers aren’t paying for their English castles and private jets with recording royalties these days. They stay rich by touring. And though Hilary Hahn won’t be acquiring any castles soon, she does earn $30,000 to $50,000 for three concerto performances, depending on the orchestra.

    Thankfully, artists want to continue making recordings. It helps their “brand” and I’m pretty sure most want to leave a “legacy” of their efforts. But it’s putting bodies in the seats that counts and, judging from the two concerts I attended just in the past week or so – the Takacs Quartet and Richard Goode – this is going pretty well.

  • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

    They are not clueless Peter, its what anybody would do in their place. Classical music is not an independent part of the music industry, but a minuscule part of an already shrinked category of recorded music, and those independent labels are too small and undercapitalized to be able to create their own niche, and are thus forced to compete in the majors rules to stay in the game. The only downside of the dilution of art in favor of entertainment (bocelli, 2cellos, piano guys, charlotte church, etc) is pissing off a handful of people concerned about culture like you and me. Unlike environmental pollution, nobody is going to get sued for releasing and promoting cheap artists. Its not like contaminating the air or the water, or releasing toys with lead paint or tainted food. Nobody is going to die for listening to Bocelli instead of Jonas Kaufmann, so why would they care? If my job is on the line, and I depended on #’s to keep it, I bet you anything you would not care either. Tere’s no overt/tangible downside to cultural pollution.

  • MacroV says:

    Over the years I probably acquired about 1,200 CDs, but then largely stopped buying them (except for an occasional bunch of obscurities or bargains from Berkshire Record Outlet), simply because I knew that I would never listen to most of them again; I donated about 150 of them to a library (should have been more).

    But I still listen to music all the time – YouTube, Mezzo TV, Digital Concert Hall, orchestra websites (primarily New York and Chicago), not to mention radio. And of course attend live performances.

    So I have contributed to the decline of the classical record industry, but I still see full halls when I go to concerts, so all hope need not be lost quite yet.

  • Michael W. Sullivan says:

    I Just placed an order with Berkshire Record Outlet 8/28/15 and got an Email confirmation.

    They are Back!

  • Rainer says:

    This post has grown old a bit. However, I am looking for the absolute numbers of classical recordings sold – and can’t find any. Billboard, Nielsen, Gfk (for Germany) only show rankings, not absolute numbers…

    So can someone point me to a reliable source?

  • David Markle says:

    Part of the picture: the audiophile market seems to have declined in parallel. Most folks listening to Spotify and other on-line sources probably use little computer speakers or ear buds. To get first-rate cutting edge sound, you have to use good equipment and Super Audio or Hybrid CD’s.