Star Wars soundtrack sold 94,000 last week. And classical sales?

The top 25 classical albums put together sold just under 9,000 copies in the US, the world’s largest market, according to Nielsen Soundscan.

That’s the state of the record business, end of 2015.

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  • Now, hold on…on this very website not two weeks ago, Maestro Gustavo Dudamel, apropos his having conducted some of the “Star Wars” soundtrack recording, was quoted as follows about its creator:

    “John Williams is the Mozart of our day. […] [H]e’s a genius.”

    SURELY this assessment counts for something… Since the “Mozart of our day” wrote it, perhaps the soundtrack recording should be classed as “Classical”, thereby skewing the sales figures heavily into the category we all love and care for.

    (Written with tongue almost inextricably in cheek.)

    • Actually no, it should not be classified as classical. According to Billboard, Elvis Presley should be (and is) classified as classical.

      Your world is over folks, and your institutions continue to program a handful of warhorses to make ends meet like a pack of zombie wolves ready to adapt their offering and play ANYTHING (from star wars to rap music) in order to suck the time and money out of “new audiences”.

      “Elvis at the Symphony” comes next! Right after Adele at the symphony and another string quartet playing Tiesto’s music or Lady Gaga.

  • A soundtrack written as a full score (by the only film composer still to do so – a composer who also writes “pure” classical pieces and financially supports classical institutions) played by a full orchestra and embraced by the public. Why yes, let’s trash it. lol

    • An opinion from the peanut gallery.

      The purists have no choice but to trash it. Seriously.

      Those who have lived life as creationists cannot accept evolution, despite any evidence, because to do so would make a mockery of a lifetime of commitment. Classical musicians train hard for many years to achieve mastery, and so may become beholden to a similar investment, a faith. Evidence which may be true, but is an abhorrent existential assault MUST be rejected.
      The brain protects itself.

      The general public (which is not simple minded, but takes note of the snub) does not share the canonical definition of Classical music. Let the historians, or grandpa (are they the same thing?) evaluate the lasting emotional or intellectual value.
      The average listener, the statistical representative of humanity, will apply the ‘classical music’ label to new music if:
      a. traditional instruments are forefront,
      b. the voice displays the steady beauty best savored in reflective moments (but unsuitable for party mode), or
      c. the stylistic attributes are recognized as those deemed classical during ones lifetime. And this changes. It’s a vintage thing.
      This street definition of ‘classical’ applies to Star Wars. Note that the accusation has not repelled the masses, it is not doing too badly despite the slight.

      Most days I find new testimonials from a young people drawn to Classical Music including opera on social media. These are often stirring, touching in their honesty and enthusiasm. I read these not on the classical obituary pages, but on the social media of Bocelli, Evancho, Stirling.

      Classical music will endure despite retrograde attitudes, not because that attitude will ever go away (the pedagogues will be replaced as surely as we are doomed to age) but because of the value and joy intrinsic to beautiful music, that is enjoyed now more than ever, but under a different name.

      • I appreciate your points and enthusiasm, but I do not agree with your broad definition of classical music. Musical theater, songbook, film, jazz and many other forms of music using “traditional instruments” have existed for a long time. Just as there are requirements for music to fit within the pop, musical theater, R&B and jazz world, there are requirements for classical.

        I did not mean to suggest that I think the Star Wars theme in any way is classical music.

        It is the very definition of a film score. But, John Williams does write classical music and support classical institutions, and I think there’s value in classical institutions embracing a wide range of his music.

        I would not, however, support the watering down of any particular genre, including classical, to make it more simple. One of the beauties of classical music its complexities and the beauty of classical singers is that they can perform skills no other singers can. But so can R&B or gospel singers, who can riff like no other type of singer. I wouldn’t ever tell Aretha Franklin that others singers were soul or R&B singers because we should expand the definition to allow simpler interpretations and those with less developed skills to be included.

  • I’ve never understood why incidental music (Egmont, Peer Gynt, etc.) is considered “classical” music and film music is not? Or for that matter, why Broadway “musicals” are looked upon as inferior to German singspiel or French opera comique? Are JW’s use of leitmotivs any less effective than Wagner’s?

    I am a conductor and, for me, everything is fair game. As for Mozart, there will be only one. That doesn’t malign the alleged “genius” of JW.

    It is no small wonder that many question the relevancy of “classical” music.

      • Fun? Nonsense? I suppose that, if one chooses to read my comments in that way, such a conclusion might be made. I’m very sorry that many are so jaded that they cannot possibly accept the totality of “classical” music. It comes off as snobbish in the extreme and will hasten this music’s demise.

        It doesn’t matter that someone has been drawn to Debussy, whose scores can sound quite “cinematic” through film music. Or to Wagner, Mahler, Stravinsky and a host of others through game music. The “thing” is that something “hooked” that casual listener and brought them to Beethoven. They didn’t grow up listening to the latter’s symphonies on scratchy old LPs on a turntable in the basement, or be fortunate to be introduced to Mahler in a live performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra (as was I). And yet, to denigrate their “journey” is troubling in the least.

      • Dear Mika,

        “Argumentum ad hominem” is an attack on an argument made by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, rather than attacking the argument directly. When used inappropriately, it is a logical fallacy in which a claim or argument is dismissed on the basis of some irrelevant fact or supposition about the author or the person being criticized. (source: Wikipedia)

        It would be so much more interesting if you could actually bothered to ARGUE your case.

        • I assumed wrongly that the writer was having “fun ” and so posted his nonsense .A conductor who claims not to understand the difference between” incidental classical ” music and
          film music, Wagner and Williams effects …Broadway and German singspiel or French
          opéra comique seems to me to be in the wrong profession . There is no case to argue,
          the” intent ” of each discipline being so defined to the audience it wants to reach .

          • Ah Milka, it’s very simply a matter of the size of one’s “tent”. Mine has room for Rosenkavalier and Show Boat, Nevsky and The Force Awakens. I would even argue that the repertoire of the wind band is as significant as that of the symphony orchestra, but I digress.

            You’re right: there is really no case to argue, but one has to have an open mind. For me, end of discussion.

    • “for me, everything is fair game.”

      Well good for you. However, your attitude towards those who prefer to concentrate on fewer genres seems to be riddled with the sort of snobbery you claim to dislike.

  • I think we’re dealing with that “dividing line” that separates (as Bernard Herrmann defined it) “film composers” from “composers who write for film”. In the latter camp (which certainly included Herrmann himself) we could put Copland, Honegger, Walton, Vaughan Williams, Prokofiev…in the former, John Williams, Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, etc. Any resistance to acknowledging this distinction, let alone any discussions about relative worth, pretty much negates the necessity of discussing it further.

  • No, that’s not the state of the record business, that’s the state of the classical music business. You can’t truly expect another recording of Beethoven’s 5th to compete with the Star Wars soundtrack, or do you?

    • Nailed it, Dave.

      Nor is this a new phenomena. In 1956, Arthur Rubinstein recorded Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with the Chicago Orchestra under Reiner. It sold some 250,000 copies. In 1971, Rubinstein recorded it again with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy. It sold less than 10% as many copies.

      It’s not that there was anything wrong with Rubinstein’s later performance. It merely boils down to how many recordings of a given repertoire staple does one need? I already have over 3,000 CDs, and I must either limit my purchases to the interesting and unique – or buy a bigger house.

      By the way, my introduction to orchestral music was the original Star Wars score, released on a double-LP in 1977 – which I still have. That sparked my interest in music, and from there I went on to study piano, attend concerts, and build a music collection.

      • On a related note, Hank, I owned that same recording a long time before I ever saw the film. On some note, it related to me in my youth, and I got hooked. And now, I’m conducting that stuff.

        • It would be interesting to know what counts as a “unit” of sale when it comes to CDs. For example, I received Brilliant Classics Schubert Edition for Christmas, which includes 69 CDs. It seems more of these multi-CD boxes are being issued every year, particularly by Sony, Warner, and the Universal group, as they reissue great swaths of their back catalogs – much of which has never been issued on CD before. If the bean-counters are listing these boxes as one “unit” then things may not be as dire as they appear.

          But as I said before, if labels keep issuing the same repertoire ad inifinitum, they can’t realistically expect classical aficionados – who constitute a relatively small portion of the market – to keep buying them.

  • Note that Prokofiev, Shostakovich,and Schnitke, between other, composed for the Movies. Why not focus on the score’s quality instead of the media?

  • It’s not hard to see why the Star Wars soundtrack is selling to this extent, giving the media machine behind it (Disney) and the quality of John Williams’ music. We should also take heart in the fact that people still value a full, symphonic score.

    In today’s post at my music appreciation blog, The Listeners’ Club (link below) I show the wide array of classical music from Mahler to Walton, that influenced Williams. Hopefully people who enjoy the soundtrack will be inspired by John Williams’ music to dig deeper into these other works. If so, that’s only a win.

    http://timothyjuddviolin.com/2015/12/thoughts-on-john-williams-new-star-wars-score/

  • I’d be interested to know how many of these 94,000 owners will still be listening to their prize possession in 1, 5 and 10 years time.

    In the 1970s, someone bought me a copy of the Jaws soundtrack LP. It was played once, or maybe a second time to see how closely it resembled The Battle on the Ice from Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. Don’t know where it is now – probably in a box in the attic.

  • 107 years since Saint-Saens wrote the first film score and snobs are still having trouble accepting it as a legitimate genre in its own right, with its own conventions, requirements and traditions – their sole argument being, as far as anyone can tell, that, “er, it’s new”. They’re like those critics in the 1870s who argued that what Wagner wrote wasn’t music because he used valve-horns. Or music teachers in 1810 having seizures because Beethoven dispensed with continuo. They’re probably still struggling to accept the artistic validity of symphonic poems.

    Their loss: the rest of us are enjoying some superb music. Williams is unsurpassed amongst living composers in his chosen genre, and is giving us something new. He deserves his success.

    • Hiding behind the old “snob” trick? I expected better.

      Rejecting Williams is like rejecting Wagner? Ridiculous.

      • I don’t think the “snob trick” is in play here–he’s saying that people tend to be resistant to the “new” and favor the tried and true.

        I think he’s right.

        I can easily accept a good movie soundtrack–I put Star Wars in this category–but now there are scores for video games. Recently, this blog featured a video performance of and excerpt from Final Fantasy symphony. I can’t be the only one who chuckled at that.

        But this really isn’t different from incidental music for older art forms. It should be judged on its merits, not discarded because of the circumstances of its composition.

        (That said, I thought it was pretty unremarkable, and I would be surprised if it found a long term following. But I’ve been wrong before and certainly will be again…)

        • “I don’t think the “snob trick” is in play here–he’s saying that people tend to be resistant to the “new” and favor the tried and true.”

          So why doesn’t he simply call it conservatism?

          It seems to be almost impossible to discuss anything outside or on the fringes of classical without someone resorting to this lazy accusation. “Accept this or else!” seems to be the intention.

          I think people are judging JW on his merits but, unfortunately, there seems to be only one acceptable conclusion. I seriously doubt whether his film music is capable of surviving away from the films it was created for, on its own merits, for any length of time. JW does an excellent job as a film music composer but, away from the screen, there is better music in similar styles elsewhere. Just my opinion, snobbish or not.

  • Partly in reply to Anne63, and partly in the general interest of the conversation:

    The first record I asked for, at age 7 in 1977, was the Star Wars soundtrack, performed by the LSO (if memory serves).

    I adored it at 7. I still do at 45. The Star Wars sound track, the soundtracks to the subsequent films, and John Williams’s other hits–Superman, Indiana Jones among them–opened the door to orchestral music for me and led to a life-long love. I would not be frequenting Slipped Disc without John Williams!

    I do no know whether the new installment will endure, but based on Williams’ track record, it’s a better bet than most orchestral music written today.

    I often play the Star Wars records for my sons (now 8 and 6) in the hope that it will inspire them as well. They love it and I hope they will continue to love it.

    Sometimes I sneak some Holst or Wagner or Dvorak or Sibelius in, to see if they notice, and to help them understand the tradition that’s informing Williams work. An experiment that sometimes succeeds, and sometimes fails. (Re Beethoven 5th, my then-7 year old opined, “Not a masterpiece!” We still have work to do.)

    I see no obvious distinction between film scores (Williams now, Korngold then) and ballets (Tchaikovsky) or incidental music (Grieg) or even Opera (Everyone) or experimental hybrid art forms (e.g., Lizst’s pioneering symphonic poems, the “tableux” for which Sibelius wrote).

    The difference between Williams and Zimmer isn’t the media for which they compose, but the nature and quality of the compositions, as to which minds can differ.

    Time will tell which, if either, endures.

  • Perhaps it’s important to consider here that we’re talking about recordings, not live performances. People aren’t buying a lot of classical recordings, in part because it’s a narrow interest, but also because a lot of classical music lovers have other options. Once my collection exceeded 1,200 CDs, I pretty much stopped buying new CDs and gave away many of them, figuring I’d never listen to them again. But I can listen to music on Youtube – find almost anything – orchestra websites (Chicago, New York, Montreal, Concertgebouw, Boston, and of course Berlin’s Digital Concert Hall). And while classical radio also seems to be dying, thanks to the internet you can stream any station in the world now.

    Attendance at live performances is a mixed bag, but does seem healthier than sales of recordings.

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