The chart to the left is the top-selling classical recordings chart on iTunes as of Sunday night April 14, 2013. Is this a good measure of current popularity? This may be what people are buying right now, but it doesn’t necessarily measure what people are really listening to. Nor does it measure the music being played live in concert halls all over the country.
Yet it does suggest what people are willing to pay for. The question is why are they willing to pay for it? What makes the sale? We know lists sell (every journalist knows the power of lists to drive traffic and build clicks). They’re a way of ranking, of choosing the few from the many and organizing them in a way that make a case for them.
Then there are personalities – Katherine Jenkins, Bocelli, Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, Dawn Upshaw…
There’s the “self-help” music – Mozart for Brain Power, no less. And a recording of music that has tied itself to the most popular book of last year. There are two (!) recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and another set of Beethoven’s nine symphonies.
It would be very easy to note the shallowness of this list and lament the lack of contemporary music, the “safeness” of the choices and the narrowness of the range of performers. But how did buyers make their choices? I’d wager that critics didn’t review most of these recordings, so buyers weren’t being directed to these recordings by “experts.” And this looks like a list measuring the choices of classical music novices, buyers who are looking for a comfort level born of familiarity.
So two things. We know sales of classical music are small. This list suggests that sophisticated fans aren’t buying in numbers, since their choices aren’t reflected in this list. Is that because they already have all their music or that they get their music delivered in different ways? Or are they so small in numbers that their consumption of music isn’t enough to have their choices show up on the charts?
Second: What is it about what is selling that attracts buyers?
Seven years ago in Slate, Marc Geelhoed surveyed the iTunes chart and and tried to grapple with what was popular then. Interestingly, the artists he wrote about then are some of the same artists on the list today. Geelhoed ends his piece with a swipe at one of the choices:
“With its warhorses and canon of great works, classical music is insulated from a lot of fads. Beethoven’s Fifth will probably always be popular, and so will “Carmina Burana.” But it’s not so far from popular culture that a tenor whose calling card is his biography and who is backed by an effective PR machine can grab the spotlight. Beethoven raged at the heavens for letting him lose his hearing, but then, he never heard Andrea Bocelli.”
For another look at ranking music, there’s the annual ClassicFM UK poll of most popular music, as voted by listeners to the station. There’s actually little movement on the chart from year to year. Which is to say that a fairly conservative list of choices make it every year.
But rather than lament the choices contained in these two lists, what are the larger lessons to be learned here by what is chosen? What would your Top Ten List look like?