Is classical music staging a comeback?

How popular culture gets popular.
Feb. 23 2007 12:18 PM

Is Classical Making a Comeback?

The hottest musical genre of 2006.

Sheet music.
Sheet music

Is classical music—a genre that has spent a seeming eternity on the commercial skids—staging a comeback? That's the buzz on Nielsen SoundScan's 2006 report card, which listed classical as the year's fastest-growing musical genre. In an otherwise dreary year, sales of classical albums—a figure that includes CDs, LPs, and downloaded albums—increased by 22.5 percent, or 3.57 million units. That put the genre way ahead of such laggards as jazz (down 8.3 percent), alternative (down 9.2 percent), and rap (down 20.7 percent).

Accustomed to dismal stories about the graying of classical's audience, aficionados were elated by the Nielsen numbers. "Who killed the death of classical music?" bloggedNew Yorker music critic Alex Ross, taking a verbal jab at an ominously titled 1997 book. Some industry observers, notably Wired editor Chris Anderson (a boss and friend of mine), opined that classical's rise was due mostly to increasing online sales—in other words, yet another validation of the Long Tail, his theory that the Internet will help niche media find bigger audiences. Since brick-and-mortar music stores have largely shrunk or mothballed their classical sections, Anderson wrote, fans have turned to the Web, where they've discovered a cornucopia of previously hard-to-find albums.

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It's certainly true that classical labels and artists have become savvier about the Internet—last February, for example, the New York Philharmonic agreed to release four concert albums annually on iTunes, after several years of releasing virtually none. And leading independent label Naxos, known for its budget CDs, enjoyed a banner year in 2006, thanks in large part to digital distribution via iTunes and other digital services. But by far the biggest reason for 2006's uptick in classical sales was the success of three artists whom highbrow fans often view with disdain: Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, and Il Divo.

Bocelli, an Italian tenor, and Groban, an American baritone, have long ruled Billboard's classical crossover chart, which is distinct from the regular classical chart. At year's end, however, Nielsen SoundScan, which provides Billboard's data, lumps all classical sales together when coming up with its annual genre figures.

Billboard's chart managers are solely responsible for determining which chart an album appears on, and there's a fair amount of subjectivity to their verdicts. But when trying to distinguish classical from classical crossover, a good rule of thumb is this: If the music sounds more appropriate for a feel-good Disney movie than Avery Fisher Hall, it's a safe bet it qualifies as crossover. Think honeyed voices singing about love or inspiration, backed by lush string sections and synthesizers. Think singers who look like J. Crew models.

Self-styled classical purists dislike the crossover stars, just as rock snobs scoff at Nickelback. There's no surer way to aggravate a philharmonic subscriber than to mention that you really, really like Bocelli's treacly "Because We Believe." (Sample lyric: "Once in every life/ There comes a time/ We walk out all alone/ And into the light.") But Bocelli, Groban, and their tousled haircuts have won the hearts of classical crossover's core demographic—females in the 36-to-50 age group.

Neither Bocelli nor Groban released an album in 2005. Not coincidentally, sales of classical albums declined by 15 percent that year, from 18.69 million units to 15.88 million. But the two singers bounced back with major releases in 2006—first Bocelli's Amore in late January, then Groban's Awake in early November.

Buoyed by televised appearances at the Winter Olympics and the NBA's All-Star Weekend, as well as special promotional deals with JCPenney and Starbucks, Bocelli had a particularly prosperous 2006. Amore, which features a duet with Christina Aguilera and a guest appearance from Stevie Wonder, sold 1.4 million units, while a late-year live album ( Under the Desert Sky) moved another 460,000 copies. There also seemed to be a renewed interest in Bocelli's earlier works; two of his older albums made the year-end crossover chart, too.

Awake, meanwhile, did nearly as well as Amore. Groban hadn't released a studio album since 2003's Closer, and his fans were eager for new product. In just two months on shelves, Awake sold 1.3 million units. Taken together, then, Groban and Bocelli's new albums accounted for combined sales of 3.16 million units.

The third crossover titan is Il Divo, an Italian operatic pop group. Il Divo's self-titled debut came out in 2005 and ended up being that year's biggest-selling classical album. The group followed with two new albums last year, Siempre and Ancora, which sold about 1.5 million units combined; the double-platinum Il Divo also sold another 400,000 copies.

The biggest-selling noncrossover classical album of 2006, meanwhile, was Sting's Songs From the Labyrinth, an album of 17th-century lute music. A blockbuster by traditional classical standards, it sold 23,518 copies in its first week—about 246,000 fewer copies than Awake moved in its first week. The first iTunes concert album from the New York Philharmonic, meanwhile, was proclaimed a roaring success after it sold around 2,300 units during its first month.

Classical's renaissance may not be quite as robust as fans might hope, but it's not wholly an illusion, either. The bottom line is that last year's classical-album sales were the highest since 2002, and the Internet surely played a role in expanding the genre's reach—just not as big a role as was first conjectured. If nothing else, classical lovers should count themselves fortunate that they're not into New Age. The genre of nature sounds and sonic pudding endured last year's steepest album sales decline—22.7 percent.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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