Thursday, March 8, 2007

Observers have been predicting the death of classical music for years now. Symphony orchestras from coast-to-coast are struggling to sell tickets. Those who do attend concerts are more likely than not to have gray hair. Critic Norman Lebrecht already declared the industry dead when he asked, in the title of his 1997 book, “Who Killed Classical Music?”

So it came as a surprise to discover that classical was last year’s fastest-growing musical genre, with album sales up 22.5 percent.

Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks American point-of-purchase music sales in stores and online, recently released its 2006 data. Sales of classical albums were up while sales of many popular genres fell: rap was down 20.7 percent, R&B was down 18.4 percent, alternative 9.2 percent and jazz 8.3 percent.

(Soundtracks also did well, with a 19 percent increase, but that’s because of the year’s top-selling album, “High School Musical.”)

With 19.4 million albums sold, classical sales were at their highest level in four years. Meanwhile, the industry as a whole is suffering. Album sales overall were down 4.9 percent from 2005, with 588.2 million sold last year.

Who might have been responsible for such an impressive climb? Did a legendary symphony orchestra release a particularly stirring rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth, for example? Did a talented young soprano bowl us over with her Isolde in Wagner’s masterpiece?

Sadly, there’s no such encouraging explanation for classical music’s sudden rise. In fact, we might have to lay the genre’s resurrection at the feet of six words that would seem to be an anathema to classical connoisseurs: Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban — and Il Divo, the international male operatic pop quartet created by cranky “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell.

Il Divo’s debut recording, featuring a Spanish rendition of R&B singer Toni Braxton’s hit “Unbreak My Heart,” was the top-selling classical album of 2005. The group released two albums last year that combined sold about 1.5 million copies.

But Il Divo’s successful debut didn’t help classical sales enough in 2005. Album sales were down 15 percent. Perhaps it’s because neither Mr. Bocelli nor Mr. Groban released an album that year. (Mr. Bocelli, however, did appear on the recording of the opera “Werther.”)

Their 2006 releases may have single-handedly resuscitated the genre — if they were actually working in it.

Mr. Bocelli, a blind Italian tenor whose life story has enchanted millions, records operas every now and then. His performances rarely get good reviews, though. But the nonclassical buying public — particularly women — fell for his 2006 release “Amore.” It had a remake of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” a duet with pop star Christina Aguilera and sold 1.4 million copies. Mr. Bocelli’s CD/DVD release of a live concert, “Under the Desert Sky,” gave him an additional 460,000 copies sold.

Mr. Groban, an American baritone, doesn’t even bother with opera. His 2006 LP “Awake,” featuring one song co-written with Dave Matthews, was his first in three years. It was released in November and by year’s end already had sold 1.3 million copies.

Mr. Bocelli’s and Mr. Groban’s 2006 releases alone were responsible for more than 3 million of the 19.4 million classical albums sold last year.

These crossover acts may have saved classical sales.

But will they save classical music?

“I’m sorry, it’s not classical music,” declares Timothy Mangan, classical music critic of the Orange County Register. Fans of these crossover acts, he says, “are not classical listeners. To count them as that is a little bit deceptive.”

Mr. Mangan is ambivalent about crossover success. “If the money goes to the record label and they can finance some legitimate classical music, I don’t see how it can hurt the industry,” he says. “But I don’t think it brings people to classical music. I don’t think Bocelli fans are buying the complete works of Franco Corelli,” he says, referring to the Italian tenor famous in the 1950s through 1970s.

Of course, some top-sellers were legitimate classical albums. But even these weren’t immune to the celebrity culture that has overtaken every area of the arts. The best-selling noncrossover classical album of 2006 was Sting’s “Songs From the Labyrinth,” in which the pop star sings music by Elizabethan composer John Dowland. It’s a surprisingly successful work, artistically speaking, but would an album of singing accompanied by lute have become a best-seller without the star power of Sting?

The Police frontman wasn’t the only celebrity who helped push classical sales. Paul McCartney’s original composition “Ecce Cor Meum” was an ambitious work released last year that was, in part, a tribute to his late wife, Linda.

Labels have learned that the best way to beat the celebrity culture is to join it. Many of the top selling albums on the classical chart now, although often well-regarded artistically, are by artists marketed as much for their looks as their talent. Case in point: The fourth best-selling classical album on Billboard’s chart right now is “Russian Album,” by gorgeous Russian soprano Anna Netrebko. The second and third best-sellers are editions of Sting’s album, while the top seller is a compilation CD by the very well known cellist Yo-Yo Ma (he’s even got a “Seinfeld” mention, to boot).

Still, Mr. Mangan believes there’s more to that 22.5 percent figure than just the crossover and celebrity acts. The music industry is changing, and the classical industry along with it.

“Whenever there is a switch in the way music is delivered, classical music fans are often — maybe all the time — at the vanguard of that change,” Mr. Mangan says. He recalls working at a Los Angeles Tower Records store when the switch was made from vinyl to compact disc. Classical fans adjusted a lot quicker than fans of pop and jazz.

“Classical listeners are middle-aged, well established, have good incomes and get onboard with new technologies quicker,” he says.

Younger fans don’t always have the buying power to become early adopters, but these days, most people believe it’s younger listeners who are driving the popularity of digital sales.

More and more albums are bought online, with digital album sales more than doubling last year. In 2006, the Guardian reported that while classical music accounts for about 3 to 4 percent of total sales in music stores, it represents 12 percent of sales on online music retailer ITunes. The London newspaper also noted that when BBC Radio 3 made the complete Beethoven symphonies available free on its Web site in 2005, there were 1.4 million downloads in just two weeks.

American orchestras are finally starting to put their offerings online. The New York Philharmonic has concert albums for sale on ITunes. Its first sold about 2,300 copies the first month it was available.

And while pop music fans are forgoing albums in favor of purchasing just the tracks they want, classical fans are more likely to want that entire symphony or concerto rather than just one movement of it. While albums by Sting and Mr. Bocelli make appearances on ITunes’ album chart, the Academy of St. Martin in the Field’s recording of Mozart’s “Requiem” is No. 4 and the London Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is No. 7.

Moreover, more classical fans may be willing to purchase online now that Gracenote, which operates ITunes’ database, last month announced an improved digital standard for labeling such music. With a long and varied roster of both artists and composers, it’s more difficult to categorize than pop.

While many — including myself — believe the day might come when the classical music charts include nothing but crossover acts, Mr. Mangan remains optimistic.

“People worry about the graying of the classical audience,” he notes. “If you look at the demographics, that’s the audience that’s going to be growing in size the next few years.”

He believes that as baby boomers approach 65, they’ll refresh the classical audience. “That doesn’t mean they’re interested now or ever have been,” Mr. Mangan says. “But when they get time and money and get to be a certain age, they are. In some ways, the future of classical music looks very bright.”

So don’t tell him that yet another critic has predicted the death of classical music. “It’s not a genre that’s trendy,” he says. “The people that listen to it are extremely devoted and don’t switch to other genres. We’re always here and always will be.”

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