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Classical CD biz bounces back

Music for Screens: Summer 2011

Looking at the classical CD business in 2011, some may wonder whether there still is a classical CD business.

The major labels — Universal, EMI, Sony and Warner Music Group — are mostly shooting out reissues these days. The demise of the Tower Records chain in fall 2006 hit classical labels hardest of all, for Tower was the primary showcase for their deep catalog product. The early-2000s attempt to juice up sales with the competing hi-def, multi-channel audio formats DVD-A and Super Audio CD (SACD) never caught on with most classical customers, let alone the mass market, although SACD soldiers on as a niche format for audiophiles. Downloading and streaming seem to be the only choices for the future.

But hold those obituaries for the classical CD.

Nielsen SoundScan’s report for the first half of 2011 indicates that classical music had the biggest gain in sales of all genres, 13%, over the first half of 2010, for a total of 3.8 million albums.

Granted, that’s still a small percentage of the total market (about 2.4%), but it shows that classical is holding its own and then some, with other genres up slightly or slipping.

Moreover, the majors are being supplanted by a swarm of activity from other, smaller, nimbler sources.

Many orchestras increasingly take matters into their own hands, no longer relying on the majors for exposure. The Chicago Symphony has its own label, CSO Resound, so do the Boston and St. Louis symphonies, as well as the London Symphony, London Philharmonic and several other foreign orchestras. With Telarc reduced to a shell of its former self after the takeover by Concord, its two once-regular orchestras, the Cincinnati and Atlanta symphonies, have just formed their own labels.

Probably the most successful and luxuriously packaged inhouse orchestra label is the San Francisco Symphony’s SFS Media, which in 2010 completed its decade-long Mahler project on 17 SACDs and just issued a capstone documentary, “Keeping Score: Mahler,” on DVD and Blu-ray. SFS Media claims to have sold more than 130,000 Mahler CDs worldwide at premium prices — a roaring success for a classical series.

Likewise, individual artists and small ensembles now routinely bypass the majors and minors alike in favor of their own boutique CD labels — like New York new music collective Bang on a Can’s Cantaloupe, pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel’s ArtistLed, plus composer Philip Glass’ Orange Mountain Music.

Free of the old restrictions, these labels can offer as many choices to their fans as their markets will bear. In the prolific Glass’ case, Orange Mountain Music has issued at least 75 releases since its launch in 2003, and the Music@Menlo festival in Silicon Valley exhaustively documents its concerts in massive annual boxed sets.

Naxos, the budget label that upended the classical record industry in the 1990s with its no-frills, high-quality recordings, has turned itself into a big distributor of small labels, with 148 of them (mostly classical) now under its umbrella. Harmonia Mundi, once and still a specialist in early music, also distributes a long string of small labels.

If the majors don’t want to keep their rich classical catalogs in print, others are happy to step into the breach. The online retailer ArchivMusic, now owned by piano manufacturer Steinway, has been making deals with the majors that allow it to press custom copies of out-of-print classical CDs and sell them on its website (the titles now number well in the thousands). PentaTone, founded by former executives from now-defunct Philips Classics, continues to reissue out-of-print Philips recordings on SACDs, often in their originally recorded, hitherto-unreleased quadraphonic format. Newton Classics is also mining the Philips catalog for reissues.

While all of this activity is mainly visible to those who are adept at finding stuff online, clearly it is hitting its intended target — the beleaguered, but far from beaten, classical CD customer.

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