Sunday, September 16, 2007

Classical music online

This article on classical music sales explores why classical music appears to be benefiting from the internet where everyone else seems to be struggling. It gives a few reasons, only one of which looks convincing for the long run:
  • Classical music is harder to pirate because it demands better sound quality and one generally buys it in bigger blocks. A high-fidelity recording of the Ring Cycle is a lot more bits than a 3-minute pop song in mp3 form. Classical listeners are also more interested in liner notes, biographies of the performers and such. Well, maybe, but people seem to have no trouble pirating DVDs.
  • Classical music requires more sophisticated cataloging. OK, so popular music players tend to assume all you care about is the performer and get confused when you have to talk about the composer as well, and they don't tend to recognize that a single piece can comprise several tracks. That's lame, but so what? This is not an overwhelming technical problem. It's a matter of picking a system and going with it. Libraries have been cataloging classical music by hand for decades or centuries depending on how you count, so that might be a good place to start. More to the point, several players have already had a go. This will not remain a differentiator for long.
  • Classical audiences are more suited to the "long tail". This I'll buy. Clasical listeners are more interested in, say, finding several performances of the same piece, or finding obscure composers, as opposed to buying what everyone else is buying. This means sellers can put out tons and tons of selections, the more the better, knowing that while only ten people might buy a given selection, someone will likely buy any given piece and in aggregate volume will be good. I don't think this is unique to the classical world, but it's not what's shifting millions of units at the top of the charts.
The main point I want to make here is that the "defensive" technological points (that is, the first two), don't wash. Piracy can't be lower for classical music because it's harder. It has to be lower for other reasons.

You could read this two ways:
  1. Once classical listeners figure out they can pirate, the game is up.
  2. In some markets, there is less desire and/or incentive to pirate.
I personally doubt that classical listeners are less technically savvy than everyone else (and the article claims the opposite). That makes understanding (2) interesting and important.

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