Journalism, like any other field, is shy when it comes to admitting ignorance. If a journalist wants to write about a subject, he’ll search and search for a self-proclaimed expert until he finds someone who will opine with enough certainty to be able to form the basis of a story. But the truth, both ontologically and epistemically, is messier than that. And so three cheers for Alex Ross, who has done a serious investigation of the market in classical music, and concluded that “Nobody has the slightest idea what’s going on.”
Ross fingers Brendan Koerner and Bob Tedeschi as journalists all too willing to jump to the conclusion that classical music sales are plunging, even though there’s quite a lot of reason to believe that they’re not. Certainly things like Amazon’s Classical Blowout store are almost irresistible for the classical-music lover: you can find popular fare like Itzhak Perlman playing Vivaldi for $4.99; you can find classic recordings such as Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in Aaron Copland for $6.97; you can even get Carlos Kleiber conducting the Vienna Philharmonic playing Beethoven 5 & 7 for $8.97. There are dirt-cheap Chopin CDs for $2.98; there’s even a 20-CD set of “Classical Masterpieces of the Millennium” for $29.97. Simon Rattle conducts John Adams for $9.97, and there’s a 2-CD set of Yehudi Menuhin playing no fewer than 12 Bartok violin pieces for the ridiculously low price of $8.97. (That’s a no-brainer for my mother.) If you want Rorem or Hindemith or even Heinrich Schütz’s German Requiem, you’ll find all that more obscure stuff here, too. No wonder that Amazon’s classical sales are booming, especially, as Chris Anderson points out, since the store is expressly designed to carry classical music (with composers, orchestras, soloists, conductors and so forth) rather than trying to use an Artist-Album-Song paradigm.
The classical music world will surely never see another Karajan, who sold 200 million records (and rising). But my gut feeling is that it’s far from dead.