Digital music sales surpassed physical media sales in 2011 for the first time, and music sales overall have been enjoying a steady climb for the greater part of a decade. Although physical music sales are declining, we're in an age where people want more music than ever before. How can the symphony orchestra capitalize on this trend?
In January the Nielsen Company & Billboard’s 2011 Music Industry Report produced a report on music sales. Overall music sales were up 6.9%, digital tracks sales were up 8.5% and internet album sales were up 17.7%. Even with the decline in physical media sales, the music industry is growing. Classical music is also enjoying an increase in popularity. According to the mid-year report (July 5th) digital music sales are up another 14% with classical music up 7.2%.
However, looking at the various genres, classical music is one of the few that enjoys a growth leveraging remakes rather than original compositions. iTunes is the #1 digital classical music provider with Naxos a distant second. Amazon, Classics Online and eMusic are the next three with fairly similar market shares. More than 98% of the top two classical music digital distributor's libraries are comprised of music written more than 50 years ago, more than 90% is written over 100 years ago. Yes, the bulk of the classical music repertoire is from before the 20th century. But we have numerous living composers writing new and energetic music, music which connects with a modern audience. Looking at the genre of music sold based on decade (the decade the music was released), the older the music gets, the less popular it is to download. Simply put, people want new music.
What would happen if symphonies started recording new orchestral music? All of the major distributors allow for previews of music before purchase. New orchestral music could be exposed to a much broader audience than just those found in the concert hall the night of the performance. Symphony orchestras could find this new music has an audience they didn't know existed. Rather than competing with 50 other recordings of Beethoven's Fifth, they could be the ONLY one with a recording of insert living composer's name here.
If you look at Grammy winners, the most frequently awarded in the classical music category are Georg Solti, a conductor with more awards than the Beatles, Pierre Boulez who has awards as both a conductor and a composer, and John Williams as a composer. Only Solti got there by performing already established works.
Symphony orchestras need to reach out and start programming more new music. They need to start recording these pieces and getting them out to the public. While sales are up, the percentage of increase in sales is well behind that of other pop genre's. Why? We're playing the same old thing.