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The future of classical recording - Part 1

0 Robert Levine

In my previous two posts on the state of the classical recording business here and here, I talked about Anne Midgette’s observation that even top-selling classical recordings aren’t notching up impressive sales numbers:

The dirty secret of the Billboard classical charts is that album sales figures are so low, the charts are almost meaningless. Sales of 200 or 300 units are enough to land an album in the top 10. Hahn’s No. 1 recording, after the sales spike resulting from her appearance on Conan, bolstered by blogs and press, sold 1,000 copies.

I also discussed the impact of technological change on recording sales, noted that technological discontinuities (such as the move from LP to CD) historically acted as big one-time steroid injections to the recording business, and pointed out that no such discontinuity appeared anywhere on the horizon.

So is classical recording commercially unviable? That depends on the definition of “viable.” Is it going to diminish? Hardly.

I think it’s clear that classical recordings (in particular, orchestral recordings) produced in recording sessions and released by record companies are an endangered species. The costs are too high and the potential returns too low for virtually all such recordings to be profitable over any reasonable time frame.

But most orchestral recordings are now produced from recordings of concerts, edited together with the occasional use of short “patch sessions” to fix issues unresolved in concert. More and more orchestral recordings are being produced by the orchestras themselves and released as CDs through labels who are basically just distributors and through online download stores. The cost to do this - especially for orchestras already doing radio - is pretty nominal, depending in particular on the interaction between the local labor agreement and whatever national media agreement is in place. And, even for orchestras who can’t amortize the technical expenses by charging most of it against their radio funding, the cost of hiring competent engineers with good equipment is not that high.

In short, making, and distributing, orchestral recordings can be a whole lot cheaper than at any time in the past. The implications for what the orchestral recording business looks like are worth considering.

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