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February 1, 2012 / C. J. Sperling

So Hard Data Says There Is No Crisis?

In some blog, I found a bit of snickering going on about someone who is known for studying the crisis of classical music. It’s his “Idée fixe”, they write, “he wants reality to be the way he thinks it is. But we look at the hard data, we know better. Actually, classical music is in growth, not in crisis!”


A research result from September 1997: “The most striking finding of this study is the apparent health of Grunge”.

For those who don’t know about Grunge: it’s “a subgenre of alternative rock that emerged during the mid-1980s”, “became commercially successful in the first half of the 1990s”; and “most grunge bands had disbanded or faded from view by the late 1990s” (quotes from Wikipedia article, 2012)

The 1997 study is still showcased today, touted as “Another study that — while dating back to the early stages of “The Alternative Revolution” — reveals how sophisticated tools like music cluster analysis can shed light on emerging music tastes”.

Now Coleman Insights, the researchers who found this truly striking result, isn’t some small and dubious one-person consulting. Their client list is impressive (CBS, Sony, Walt Disney, EMI, Warner, Vivendi, Mondadori, …). They need four pages to describe the methodology used in the study.

They truly had hard data, and truly came to a totally wrong result. If it’s about emerging music tastes, it’s a near-to-maximum fail to certify health for Grunge in mid-1997. A semi-anonymous article from 2007 offers three dates as to when Grunge died: 1994 (death of Kurt Cobain), 1995 (debut of Bush and Silverchair), april 1997 (breakup of Soundgarden); someone else puts it to 1996.

Apparently, there are types of hard data that won’t reveal what’s going on.


Nielsen SoundScan, de facto the official source of sales records in the music industry (Billboard music charts): one couldn’t possibly think of a data source that is more reliable.

For the first half of 2011, they reported a 13 percent rise in US classical CD sales. Whoo-hoo! The biggest gain in sales of all genres! “Classical CD biz bounces back”!

Final proof that one can’t speak of a crisis, isn’t it?

And then you have a look at what they are counting.

Current top sellers in the US “classical” market (at time of writing):

  1. Andrea Bocelli (“crossover”)
  2. Yo-Yo Ma/Stuart Duncan/Edgar Meyer/Chris Thile (classical/bluegrass/progressive)
  3. Il Divo (operatic pop)
  4. Jackie Evancho (“crossover”)
  5. Various Artists: Classical Music For The Reader
  6. Joshua Bell & Jeremy Denk
  7. Rise Of The Masters: Beethoven:100 Supreme Classics Masterpieces
  8. London Philharmonic Orchestra: The Greatest Video Game Music
  9. The 99 Most Essential Bach Masterpieces
  10. Mormon Tabernacle Choir (christian, “various composers”)

Sure there is a definition of “classical music” that encompasses all these albums. But it’s a different definition of the one that is used when discussing the future of classical music.

In this case, what could be taken as proof of a positive trend merely confirms the crisis.

Of the ten top selling “classical” albums, only one can be called fully-fledged in this genre.


Problem is, much statistical data is based on such grossly oversimplified genre borders.

So whenever someone shows “hard data” about classical audiences, he/she should show which types of music are included.

Otherwise, it’s a bit like “it must be right, because I analyzed it with help of a COMPUTER!”


As an aside, the change in use of the term “classical music” reminds me of the development of the word “democracy”.

Classical music: it’s not necessarily about its contents anymore, it’s enough if there’s classical instruments and/or players.

Democracy: it’s not necessarily about what the people want anymore, it’s enough if there are elections of some kind, no matter what the choices are.

There’s even a confucius quote for it: “If names are not right, words are misused. When words are misused, affairs go wrong. When affairs go wrong, courtesy and music droop, law and justice fail. And when law and justice fail them, a people can move neither hand nor foot.”


[Please note: all comments focussing on artists mentioned in the billboard list I quoted will either be discarded directly, or collected for a future “This Is What Fans Sound Like” post]


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