The worst ever US classical sales chart

The worst ever US classical sales chart


norman lebrecht

June 27, 2016

We’ve just seen the Nielsen Soundscan sales ratings for last week and can pronounce, in full confidence, that fewer classical records were sold than at any time since records were kept.

For the first time, no release sold as many as 100 copies in the entire USA – that’s CD sales and downloads combined.

Of the enfeebled remainder, the top three consisted of two albums of monkish chant and one of Yo Yo Ma.

What will it take to turn this around?

urania records

(And before you think this marketing gimmick is a remedy – no, it has failed.)

This is what we need to bring back.




  • David Osborne says:

    Nathan Milstein’s looking very different these days.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    I confess, the US is mostly filled with uncultured swine. They know little about music never mind art, literature, and theater. My country is doomed due to a lack of culture and education.

  • David Osborne says:

    In all seriousness I don’t this was a criticism of the USA, the pattern would be repeated in most countries. This is mainly about the delivery format, in other words CDs.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    That’s not fair. Just because classical record sales are way down doesn’t mean we’ve suddenly become uncultured slobs. When cds first came out I bought disks by the car load, often 40-50 a month. Now, not so much. I have 24 sets of Elgar symphonies and at least that many of Sibelius and Beethoven. Huge amount of Mahler. But I rarely buy anything by those guys anymore. There’s very little being released that is really new. So I don’t buy as much.
    Also – in most places there is a lot of competition for our dollars, including sports, pop concerts, theater. But you’re correct in that classical music seems to have vanished from awareness in people’s minds. And yet many of our orchestras are thriving. There are amateur orchestras and choral groups everywhere. Local orchestras do a good business when they address orchestral music that means something to today’s audiences – have you ever been to a concert with the music from Lord of the Rings? or Star Wars? Maybe it’s not Beethoven, Brahms, or Mahler, but it means something to younger people. And that’s not a bad thing; it was movie music (and cartoons) from an earlier era that hooked me on that late-romantic orchestral sound. Thank you Korngold, Salter, Waxman, Steiner, Tiomkin, Addinsell….

  • Thomas Roth says:

    The photo with the record store is from Afghanistan.

    • mario lutz says:

      Don’t mock me Thomas Roth, women in Afganistan never wear such clothes not in 1950 neither today… not during the LPs age, neither the CD or BD times…

      • Robert Holmén says:

        NPR identifies that as a photo of a record store in Afghanistan…

        • RODNEY GREENBERG says:

          Yes, this peculiar photo is from Afghanistan in the 1950s. It pops up every time SD covers this topic. Put your cursor at the bottom of the picture and you’ll see a caption: “Record stores brought the rhythm and energy of the Western world to Kabul in the 1950s.” Not much energy and rhythm in these three solemn people. The two ladies are possibly shop assistants, artfully posed for a publicity shot.

          There’s always an SD reader who identifies it. Simply right-click the photo then “Search Google for this image.” Time for a new pic … there must be hundreds.

    • Neil Thompson Shade says:

      My wife grew up in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the early to late 1960s. Her father was with the US State Department during this period working to improve crop yields for local farmers.

      My in-laws have many photos from this period of women wearing western clothes and generally imitating Jackie Kennedy. Granted, these women were educated, enjoyed a good stiff drink and a smoke, and had ideas in their heads.

  • Greg says:

    I don’t think of myself as an “uncultured” pig and I haven’t bought a classical CD in years. Do I really need yet another recording of the Mahler First? I have three already and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra programs the darned thing three or four times a year (at least it seems like it). WFMT, still a wonderful classical radio station after all these years, is there at the flick of a switch. Its band of listeners is small but devoted (and was ever thus). Perhaps we need to stop gauging the health of classical music by counting CD sales. Classical music is not going away, ever.

    • Sue says:

      There’s a fabulous CD shop, Gramolo, in Graben, central Vienna. It has a huge range of CDs from the floor to the ceiling and knowledgeable staff who are ready to help. It’s the only one I’ve seen in that city, whereas I’ve seen none in Sydney – or, at least, none worth worrying about. These shops are all going because people buy from Amazon – but that definitely has its limits. How many times have we all walked into a shop and come out with something we weren’t looking for.

      And, of course, people download now from the internet instead of buying CDs. My son says “that technology is so yesterday”. I just don’t trust downloads. I like to hold the CD in my hand and read the liner notes, libretto etc. But I hear that some CDs don’t even do this anymore. Sheesh.

      • Jaypee says:

        In the first district only, you also have EMI Austria on Kärtnerstrasse (10 minutes from Gramola) and Da Capo on Seilerstätte 30 (another 10 minutes from EMI).

  • John says:

    The Nielsen Soundscan charts are not valid: they miss out a huge number of sales. For some reason, Norman keeps using their figures.

    • Dirk Fischer / Solaire Records says:

      Even with the Nielsen Soundscan charts missing a number of sales, let’s take a closer look at what these numbers really mean: With e.g. “only” 50 sold units per week, a label would have sold 2.600 units per year. Assuming there would be USD 5,- left from the sales price, it would mean a revenue of USD 13.000,- per year. Most releases simply never sell more than a few hundred per year. For a single release of a smaller/mid-sized label, such sales would be quite a nice income, indeed, and one that would allow business to continue well.

      I think it is important to see things in perspective, instead of establishing wrong impressions.

      Dirk Fischer
      Director, Solaire Records

    • Solaire Records says:

      Even with the Nielsen Soundscan charts missing a number of sales, let us take a closer look at what these numbers really mean: With “only” 50 sold units per week, a label would have sold 2.600 units per year. Assuming there would be USD 5,- left from the sales price, it would mean a revenue of USD 13.000,- per year. Most releases simply never sell more than a few hundred per year. For a single release of a smaller/mid-sized label, such sales would be quite a nice income, indeed, and one that would allow business to continue well.

      I think it is important to see things in perspective, instead of establishing wrong impressions.

      Dirk Fischer
      Director, Solaire Records

      • Steve says:

        Soundscan is not an “exact” science but its the closest barometer that currently exists. As far as classical goes, its probably far more accurate than pop simply due to the number of shops that you can actually purchase classical from in the States – and that is not a lot. The majority of classical sales opportunities beyond Amazon, iTunes, Arkiv and a couple of others are venue sales – the bulk of those are reported to Soundscan – they are sometimes off by a week depending on when the forms get signed and sent in.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      My understanding is that LSO-Live, when they produce a new CD, typically sell about 10,000 units worldwide. (Of course, some will sell more and some will sell less). While this isn’t the financial bonanza that orchestras like the LSO enjoyed in the heyday of record sales, it isn’t quite the disaster sometimes suggested.

      What is true is that the London orchestras can no longer use record sales to top-up the income of their musicians in the way they could in the past if they want to attract good quality players.

      • Ken J. says:

        re: sales of London Symphony Orchestra’s “LSO Live” series:

        Possibly what we are seeing is two different business trajectories, one for North America (really for the USA) and one for Europe.

        Europe still has an authority structure which values and funds classical music. The USA does not — any such structure has been under attack since about 1980 — and as a result there are no commercially significant number of USA classical music listeners born after about 1960.

  • Winston says:

    The U.S. is a cultural wasteland. Sure, there are very interested, knowledgeable, devoted and loyal individuals there, especially in the main cities and there are wonderful orchestras, museums and other cultural offerings for a minority. Sadly, however, the general population hasn’t any interest in, nor the desire or curiosity, to discover the classics, whether in music, art, dance or literature. Few places on this planet have such morons as the majority of their population. Is it any wonder that a crass, crude, vulgar and populist Donald Trump can have such a large following there. With each visit to that country, I return to our very troubled and lost Europe and thank God that I don’t live in the U.S.A. We at least have roots and a direct connection to so much history, tradition and culture, our traditional culture. Those “roots” give us stability and doesn’t let the tree blow down in a storm. The U.S.A. doesn’t have that ancestral connection to the past, making them extremely fragile and weak. Their pubescent gun fetish won’t save them from the ignorance and stupidity that has engulfed them and their country on so many levels. With all its faults and current serious problems, ‘God Bless Europe’.

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      “We at least have roots and a direct connection to so much history, tradition and culture, our traditional culture.”

      Rum, sodomy and the lash. Go kill some Jews; part of Europe’s “traditional culture.”

      • Harriet says:

        This comment must be from a “typical” American, unable to think and see things with a neutral and critical eye. If European tradition and culture is just, “Rum, sodomy and the lash. Go kill some Jews.”, then we must assume that torture, Guantanamo concentration camp, extraordinary rendition, rectal rehydration and mass shootings are there for the Americans to compete. I’ll take Europe any day…with all its defects. America gives me the creeps…

        • Greg Hlatky says:

          This comment and the one above must be from “typical” Europeans of a certain stripe, flattering themselves that somehow they sprang fully-formed into existence in, say, 1945 as paragons of wisdom and ignoring their whole, unlovely history of murderous ethnic hatreds, lunatic political philosophies, diplomatic catastrophe, oppression and authoritarianism even now barely suppressed by an unaccountable, ramshackle neo-Habsburgian superstructure even now falling to pieces.

          The problems of the US – and my idea of the cause of those problems is very different than yours – aren’t going to be solved by listening to the lotos eaters of an economically-stagnant, technologically-torpid, demographically-moribund museum culture even now importing as fast as possible the engine of its own destruction. Indeed, the only way the United States can be ruined is by following the same path. Whatever its sins, America owes its accounting to its own founding principles, not to the ravings of the European Left, who have no standing whatsoever to offer criticisms.

          No point wasting Christian kisses on a heathen idol’s foot. The same horse plums have been thrown at America for its entire existence. Even if the US did everything European chattering classes asked for, an entirely new set of criticisms would be ginned up, so why listen at all? Transnational progressives don’t want America reformed, they want America dead, which helps explain why they’re the most abject apologists for radical Islam; Eloi themselves, they’re outsourcing the violence.

          • Furzwängler says:

            “… oppression and authoritarianism even now barely suppressed by an unaccountable, ramshackle neo-Habsburgian superstructure even now falling to pieces.”

            Well said. And exactly why a majority of Brits, myself included, have just voted to unshackle ourselves from the rotting corpse.

    • Dave says:

      You have a very short, warped memory Winston. Europe let Hitler (you do remember him?) Run rampant across Europe. You might recall that the US supplied England with food and arms in order not to be overrun.We also had to land at Normandy to free your sorry, weak asses from sure enslavement. A simple thank you will suffice.

    • Martin Haub says:

      So tell me where there is a majority interested in the arts? Where are those places where everyone goes to the ballet, symphony, art museum? Not in England I’ll tell you. Last summer when I was there and people in pubs and elsewhere asked me what brought me to London I would say “The Proms” and almost always got a blank stare back. Manchester United was more interesting or important. I know a family from Helsinki. It’s a myth that Finns are all agog about Sibelius. They knew Finlandia but nothing else. I know a German couple who know more about The Who and The Beatles than they do about Beethoven. Donald Trump is an aberration, to be sure. But of course no other country has elected some unqualified idiot. (Boris…) To call the US a cultural wasteland is ignorant and wrong. Next week I’m headed to Colorado to attend some glorious concerts in Vail and Aspen, then to Jackson, WY for another fine festival. Then to Cheyenne for the rodeo! Yeehaw! Cultural wasteland my butt.

      • Kirk says:

        I saw Murray Perahia a couple of weeks ago in Birmingham (UK), and Symphony Hall was half empty; that’s not even counting the sections where no tickets were sold. I was stunned by how few people – fewer than 1,000 – would come to hear him play the Hammerklavier. My thought as the concert began was “classical music really is dying.”

        • RODNEY GREENBERG says:

          Kirk McElearn nearly made that same observation about classical music dying in his Kirkville webpage on 18 June:

          Murray Perahia played this same programme three times within six days in June: Manchester Bridgewater Hall on the 15th, Birmingham Symphony Hall on the 17th, London Barbican on the 20th. Not a seat was to be had in Manchester. After the Barbican concert, Paul Driver wrote in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine: “Murray Perahia’s packed-out Barbican recital enshrined classical intensity with its every moment.”

          This isn’t classical music dying. Its a particular failure of Birmingham concert-goers, who otherwise loyally crowd into Symphony Hall’s orchestral and choral concerts. Unlike their counterparts in Manchester and London, they failed to respond to the allure of one of the finest pianists on the planet making one of his rare UK public performances, in a wide-ranging programme of classical masterpieces.

          Someone at Symphony Hall, or in the city’s music community, might be able to come up with an explanation, or even initiate a survey of the hall’s subscribers, to solve this mystery. (Surely nothing to do with live televised matches from Euro 2016 on 17th June? 5pm on BBC, Czech Republic vs Croatia; 8pm on ITV, Spain vs Turkey).

        • Tom says:

          It was the Hammerklavier! Even piano nuts would think twice before sitting through 40 to 50 minutes of non-stop, dense and difficult piano music. I expect that if the program had been Pathetique, Moonlight, pastoral, Appasionata that there’d have been more takers.

    • Sue says:

      Well, at least you don’t have to compete with them all for tickets!! That must make it easier.

      When will people get it through their skulls that high art isn’t for EVERYBODY? It is a learned and specialized area of appreciation and not meant for the hoi polloi. That’s part of its beauty – it’s remoteness from the quotidian. A group of people together in a concert or recital venue, sharing the arcane musical experience amongst people like themselves is surely one of life’s totally pleasurable experiences!!

  • Bill Morrison says:

    Uncultured pig here, by your definition. I can’t remember when I last bought a CD…but I listen to classical music for hours every week over various streaming devices…our TV service has classical channels, and they program quite a few composers I’m unfamiliar with–this week it was string quartets by Onslow and Wolfl…lovely stuff, and what a wonderful change from endless Beethoven.

    Point is that there many good alternatives to CDs, and their decline doesn’t necessarily mean a descent into barbarism…

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      It’s just chum that Mr. Lebrecht tosses into the water to start the usual anti-American feeding frenzy.

  • Ken J. says:

    None of this is a surprise to those “on the ground” in the USA music market. (I’m a buyer, not a seller.)

    – Entire classical CD collections, from older collectors who are downsizing or dying, are entering the used CD shoppes. In my town, the going price for a good classical music CD is $5. “Perfect sound forever!” 🙂

    – How would anyone have any idea what classical music recording they wanted to buy? There’s almost no store-front classical retail outside of a shoebox-sized collection of pop classical hits at Barnes & Noble bookstores, and maybe a handful of full-service legacy retailers like Waterloo in Austin, or Dearborn Music near Detroit. So, browsing the bins is effectively dead. Tower Records has been gone for over a decade. Slipped Disc just reported on classical distributor Allegro shutting down.

    – Classical radio keeps getting pushed out by news/talk in the public radio system, because news/talk generates much higher listener donations. Don’t expect to hear new recordings on USA radio.

    – Classical music in print is pretty much down to BBC Music and Gramophone, and obtaining those at the few remaining bookstores is a hit-or-miss proposition.

    – Classical music education? Ha. In large areas of the USA, the political debate is whether to continue to have any meaningful education at all, if it isn’t job training.

    I’m convinced that the “black horizon” of the audience is at about 55 years of age. Among people younger than that, there is not sufficient interest to sustain any sort of a classical record business.

    • David Osborne says:

      In any case as far as the education thing is concerned, you can’t teach people to like something, they’ve got to want to like it in the first place. Musical taste is essentially tribal, and that applies just as much to classical music as to any other form. The classical establishment has to face up to the fact that many creatively gifted people find the way the art-form is taught completely alienating. All these nonsensical, impossible to prove notions of correct ideas and interpretation, high and low art, the obsession with killing the joy of the music through over-analysis. It’s not the way to win new friends. The notion that this art belongs only to the wealthy and highly educated has been cultivated for far too long, and if we are to win the new audiences crucial to the art-form’s survival that notion has got to go. Now.

    • Dave says:

      So true Ken. I used to drive to Philadelphia to the Tower Records Classical store. One store with thousands of classical cd’s and albums. Music that I never dreamed existed. That store has been closed for fifteen years or so. The only classical radio station here in the state capital switched over to news/talk a couple of years ago.

      You can go to Amazon and buy whole classical collections for dirt cheap if you still spin silver discs. Once my generation dies off I wouldn’t hold out for the millenials to have any interest in this kind of music.

  • Ray says:

    Without streaming figures, iTunes downloads and Amazon sales figured in we know very little about real sales numbers. I wish we could see all these numbers in aggregation.

  • William Safford says:

    I can tell that this does not track alternative sales channels, including CD sales at concerts.

    I have seen sales of, in certain cases, dozens of CDs at a concert, then read a report lamenting the dearth of sales. The numbers don’t jibe.

    • Steve says:

      It does if they are reported – that is the key. This is why you often see a bump on the charts if an artist actually does a multi-city tour in one week with significant venue sales.

  • robin says:

    The means of delivery are shifting or have already shifted, and our understanding of music hasn’t caught up. What is “classical” music, for example? A single American artist, pianist Bruce Brubaker, gets something like 900,000 monthly plays on Spotify alone — but that’s not reflected in these numbers under discussion.

    • Steven Singer says:

      Robin – interesting observation..I just looked at Spotify and at Bruce’s page. They don’t reveal the whole picture but if you go to his “About” link, it shows his top markets where people are listening and they are not in the U.S. so that may explain why no impact on Soundscan. His top 5 markets from what I see are:

      Mexico City

  • ernestlow says:

    Please visit the Tower Records Store in Shibuya Tokyo both in-store and online to be reassurred that classical sales are still doing fine in a corner of this planet:

    • Frankster says:

      Are there country-by-country comparisons? France still has classical CDs for sale in every city and has two classical music magazines and one opera magazine in every store’s magazine rack. My TV cable service has three 24 hour commercial classical channels with more and more classical broadcasts on the general channels. All the newspapers have classical coverage, etc and nothing in this list receives government support.

      • Mike Schachter says:

        Thanks to the FNAC stores in particular France is well off for CDs-and books. But my impression is that the future for classical music is more in East Asia than in Europe and much more than in the US.

  • Gabrielle Chanel says:

    I am American but we have very little culture or sense of history. The history we do have is all subjective depending on who you talk with and it’s just better to let the fullness of time demonstrate the truth because humans are emotional and easily swayed. That’s why classical music is so great, there is the history and the newness all at once. We here in the US can brag about our melting pot all we want but it melts into what Elvis rightly called “a conveyer belt” aka cookie cutter. Until the record company heads realize that they have to reclaim the sophistication and high art of classical they will never succeed. This country exists to demonize people who are exceptional at anything. Can’t play a note but I appreciate high achievements& don’t let others’ advancements turn into a poor me pity party and demand for a participation trophy. Also the unions are killing our orchestras and make it impossible for them to release anything other than vanity projects funded by their elderly benefactors. We would do well to let these musicians make it or break it stamping his/her individual creative mark on the open market. The good ones would have a better career and we would all be able to participate in the music more with top recordings. Also a spiritual depth creates a deeper product so there is something to be said for going deep people! Simplify!

  • Mario says:

    I pay $10 a month for Spotify and find amazing music there. . . from Bach Cantatas to Wagner’s Ring to Ohilip Glass Satyagraha etc….and oh yes my PC is plugged into a $10 000 sound system so it always sounds good….No need for record stores anymore, sorry, it is call evolution, get with it.

    • Vincent Marino says:

      Forget paying for Spotify. has all the classical music you’l ever need, and it’s free.

  • Vinny Marino says:

    Another problem is the lack of commercial classical radio stations. I was on air at both WNCN and WQXR in NYC. We played new releases and sold lots of copies for those artists. Public radio stations that fit classical music in between news blocks are not listener friendly and don’t go after new listeners. They have an exclusive club vibe and don’t want anyone there who doesn’t know the secret weenie handshake. Classical music can and does work on the radio, if you program it correctly.

  • Todd Jackson says:

    Once we stopped caring about living composers, and not being able to forgive them for not being Beethoven, the die were cast.

  • J. D. Ford says:

    Practically every “classical” work you might want to hear has been uploaded to youtube, either by the copyright owner(s) or by other parties who do so illicitly. While American philistinism isn’t in doubt and is likely to get worse as a consequence of arts budget slashing in the public schools, the digital revolution has also made copying and “sharing” extremely easy. In the case of art music, few copyright owners are likely to prosecute.