Anne Midgette’s piece “Charting big with few sales: the truth about the Billboard classical charts” is an interesting read, but it doesn’t offer an accurate view of our industry*.


Hilary Hahn's Bach: Violin and Voice

Hilary Hahn's new album really has nothing at all to do with this story, but I'm going to put a picture of it here to make what I'm writing seem relevant and topical, and because there aren't enough pictures of girls on my homepage. If you click on the picture, you can buy it. Pretty sweet, huh? I'm practically Web 3.0 over here.


This story results from glimpsing a tiny part of the picture and drawing sweeping conclusions from it. It also employs the common but misleading journalistic device of playing off an inaccurate interpretation of selected facts against quotes from experts as if the truth either lay somewhere in between the two, or as if it were entirely a matter of opinion.

The bizarre thing is that none of this stuff is particularly hard to check. Almost anybody engaged in classical music marketing could have told her that:

1) Billboard is a trade publication. Its charts are intended for – and useful to – people engaged in the marketing and selling of classical recordings. They need to know which titles are selling. This is one of the many tools they use.

2) In order to be useful to those in the trade, Billboard traditional and catalog charts both make exclusions that mean neither gives an accurate representation of the best-selling classical music products, or the size of the top-end (by volume) of the market. Ignore these exclusions (by price, length and age) and the market will look smaller than it is. Include everything, and the 25 best-selling classical albums sold 24,000 units last week.

3) Hilary Hahn’s album sold 962 copies in its first week and 447 copies in its second. Anybody in the marketing department of any label could have looked that up. Anne’s not too classy to use leaked statistics. She’s just too classy to use the relevant ones.

4) Sometimes the #1 classical album sells several thousand copies in a week, but you put your big albums out in November, not January. Last week’s Billboard chart isn’t typical at all.

5) Classical music is not like pop music. Pop albums need to recoup their production and marketing costs in a short period of time. Classical records have a long shelf-life, which makes it economical to create products that won’t sell huge numbers in any one week. It is a fallacy to divine the health of an industry from the sales of its top-selling products.

6) If Murray Perahia’s Bach album sold 189 units a week for a year, that’s almost 10,000 units. Assuming a $7 wholesale, that’s $70,000. It’s hard to see how it could cost more than that to make.

7) Cecilia Bartoli is a big star in Europe. She didn’t come to America to promote her album. There are also artists (like Renée Fleming) who sell most of their records in the US. To look at Cecilia’s sales and imply that the US is 5% of the world’s classical record market is either dishonest or downright foolish.

8) If she wants a story, she might like to ask how it is that an unknown Swedish catalog marketing company has three albums in the top ten without ever pressing a CD.

If you want to see an accurate picture of classical record sales in the US and abroad, look at the IFPI’s report “Recording Industry In Numbers” which is published annually, and tells you exactly how much money we all made last year. In case you were wondering, the classical record market is worth about  $700 million worldwide. We made that money from 100,000 different albums over the course of a year, and not from one of them, in one country, last week.

* This is the second time in the last month that I’ve taken issue with something Anne has written. I’d like to be very clear that it’s not because I have some sort of grudge against her. On the contrary – I enjoy her writing. She’s one of the few critics that I still read on a regular basis. I just think she’s wrong about this.



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  1. February 1, 2010

    Bravo on all of this, most especially on point 5. I took issue with her in my comments on the Washington Post blog. Good to see that others took notice of this article. I love Anne’s writing too, but this is one that didn’t seem full researched.

  2. properdiscord #
    February 2, 2010

    I see Lebrecht has got in on the act.

    I left him a comment. I wonder if he’ll approve it 🙂

  3. Douglas Boyce #
    February 4, 2010

    here here!

  4. Vachon #
    February 5, 2010

    I’m surpsised to see anyone, particularly Anne, writing about this tired old subject (and not very accurately, either). I too read Anne’s WP blog and reviews religiously (and consider myself a fan). However, this one was WAY off the mark. So many factors go into classical music sales –and, as you so correctly noted, classical music ISN’T like pop music. The joke is Anne — and many other writers — have covered the changes in the classical music business for years. Maybe this was a plug for HH or Ceci?

  5. matthew kavanaugh #
    February 23, 2010

    As a Hahn fan and a classical music enthusiast, this just made me sad. Unfortunately, it seems to be true that the numbers are so low. At least we still have robust live concert sales. She routinely sells 1,500 seat venues for several nights in a row.
    And, for what it is worth, according to the Billboard website; Violin and Voice did not debut the week of the Tonight Show, rather a couple weeks later and at #6. {?}
    Guess that would not have made for such a storyline …
    Oh well.

    • properdiscord #
      February 24, 2010

      The overall classical chart on the Billboard website doesn’t apply the same exclusions as the traditional classical new release chart that is published in Billboard magazine. I think that would explain the discrepancy.

      I’m sorry this makes you sad – but what are you sad about? That Hilary sold 1,000 albums in a week? What are you comparing that to? She’ll sell more. Concerts sell out because they represent a rare opportunity to see an artist, but the album is available all the time. It will sell tens of thousands of copies. It’ll just take time. Sales like this aren’t a shock for the artist or label. If Hilary wanted to sell a lot records, she could record the Four Seasons. Instead, she decided to make the most interesting record that she could.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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