Monday, July 18, 2011

Calling a Spade a Club: What Defines "Classical" Music

At first glance, classical fans may rejoice at huge increase in album sales. Once you take a closer look at why the numbers soared, it becomes slightly more depressing.


1 comment:

  1. I understand why the classical music world would be depressed about the intrusion of "popera" and "classical-crossover" music into their genre. After all, "serious" classical music follows long-established principles and eschews popular trends.

    The Three Tenors were maligned by the classical music world as pretenders; not serious, in it for instant fame and fortune. One LA Times critic took a shot at them two days before their concert, calling them a three-ring circus act.

    The thing about the Three Tenors is that they attracted newcomers to classical music, who otherwise may not have been inclined. It may be depressing that classical music didn't do this on its own, but thanks are nevertheless owed to them for it.

    Of course there's a more tenuous (or no) connection between classical music and pop singers like Jackie Evancho and Il Volo. After all, neither makes claim to the genre. Jackie Evancho sees herself as "classical crossover," in the company of "popera" stars like Sara Brightman and Josh Groban. She isn't either of those in my opinion (although she should be forgiven for having the aspirations, and for repeatedly making it clear that she is not an opera singer). She is a pop singer who happens to sing an aria or three, along with a mixed repertoire of old standards, Christmas melodies and a few contemporary hits.

    Il Volo is a hip trio of young tenors who sound quite pleasant, with a loyal following. But by virtue of similarity only, the repertoires of both Jackie Evancho and Il Volo have landed them in the classical charts. That is certainly no fault of theirs, but of the lack of a category or genre that suits them and others. But like it or not, it is a legitimate art form, and it attracts newcomers to classical music.

    I won't try to correlate these two artists to the rise in "real" classical music sales, but I would guess that the phenomenon holds for them as it did for The Three Tenors and other crossover artists.

    For this reason, I wouldn't be depressed about their contribution to the 13% rise in album sales, especially given that, from Jan 2010 to Jan 2011, classical sales plummeted by a seriously depressing 26%. To "rejoice" at a suspiciously high 13% is to believe that classical music somehow did this by itself. You have to ask, "what did we do differently?"

    So lets take Jackie Evancho out of the equation. I think we all agree that she doesn't belong in the classical genre. Removing her sales numbers, you're left with a respectable first-quarter increase of 6.6%. Not a bad recovery from the dismal 2010-2011 stats.

    Lets take Il Volo out, too, although like the Three Tenors, an argument could be made. Combined with Jackie Evancho's contribution, the increase in classical is 4.2%. Third place behind Electronic and New Age. I'm writing this in 2012, long after this blog post, so I'll add that the 2011 Nielsen-Billboard final came in at 6.8%, and 19.5% in digital sales. In 2011, Jackie Evancho's #3 top-selling album was in the Seasonal category. Her album, Dream With Me (containing most of the so-called classical numbers), placed 7th in digital sales. How much this contributed to the 19.5% increase in classical is anyone's guess.

    This is not bad, folks, and there's no reason to be depressed about the possibility that crossover artists might be helping to fill concert hall seats that may otherwise have collected dust.