Will 2010 be the year that classical music dies out? Of course not. The classical record business is in better shape than pop – partly because we’ve avoided many of the excesses that pushed pop consumers away in the late 90s, and partly because our customers are just too slow to adopt the technologies that made buying pop music unnecessary and irrelevant. Still. My crystal ball says that all of these things will happen in 2010. How does it know? Because they’re already happening.
1) The tide is starting to turn on orchestras starting their own labels. Almost everybody has had a go, and almost nobody has been noticeably successful. We’ll increasingly see these ventures polarized into two categories – well-executed projects by the few that learned from the mistakes of the many, and a lot of asinine me-too entries from everybody else.
2) The bottom is falling out of the digital catalog market. Naxos has an album out that offers 24 hours of classical music for $9.99, and people want to compete with them. Prices for large budget compilations are trending very close to free, and these recordings aren’t even in the public domain yet. Expect more absurdly cheap classical download offerings, and a corresponding collapse in the mid-price market. The people that win here won’t necessarily be the major labels, who have cost structures that prohibit such violent competition.
3) The CD won’t go away. My collection of new jazz vinyl says so. What will happen is that in-print catalogs will decrease in size, with the slack taken up by a mixture of digital downloads and on-demand CD manufacturing. Jewel cases seem less and less like something that you keep, so these days I’m almost exclusively collecting box sets and deluxe packages. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
4) Amazon won’t fix their classical metadata to a point where the store is usefully navigable, because they’re in the business of providing a platform and they expect their wholesalers to bring the product merchandising expertise. The labels will increasingly realize that the only way to foster competition and innovation among online classical stores is to lower the cost of entry by agreeing to consistent metadata standards, but they still won’t actually do anything about it. iTunes and Arkiv are the only ones with the resources to fix it themselves, and they’ll continue to own the market.
5) Record labels will continue to launch their own download stores, and these will fail because the indies are boutique providers facing high fixed costs and the major labels can’t work together without exposing a deeply ingrained culture of dictating terms to the consumer. These approaches don’t work in online retail.
6) Ad-supported free music will keep happening, but nobody will build a large, successful and sustainable business out of it. VCs and label execs will keep getting paid, but ad revenue won’t cover sensible royalties. It might not take long for musicians to work out that this is a scam perpetrated by men in suits, but it’ll take forever for them to do something about it.
7) Everybody and their mother (including my mother) is on Facebook. Classical musicians will continue to flock to social networking platforms, but the rate of adoption will continue to outpace the growth of expertise in social media marketing. Expect to see third-person status messages for a while longer.
8) Most professional music criticism is on borrowed time. The bottom 85% of the profession let it become aloof, vague and subjective – and that can’t compete with social media that allows free access to the opinions of people we know and trust. The pompous old fool from the local paper is out of a job, because all the critical commentary you need is provided by a combination of your mates, a witty local volunteer blogger, and Alex Ross.
9) Mobile apps will be the snake oil of new media marketing, promising a new communication channel, access to the mobile market and a vague sense of being cutting edge. Leading the pack will be Instant Encore, who will send along a charismatic multi-millionaire to sell you on the idea of free music in an iPhone app that carries a lot of information that you’re already putting on your website. It doesn’t seem like a lot of work, but nor does it seem like a successful ploy. The app is annoying to use, the sound quality is bad and nobody seems to know what it is for.
10) Orchestras will continue to encourage multimedia participation in such a self-conscious way that it’ll just highlight the extent to which nobody has thought of a way to usefully integrate new technology into the concert experience. I’ll continue to be embarrassed for them in the same way that I would be if they tried to demonstrate the ethnic diversity of their audience by giving cheap tickets to black people.