Written by Music

Classical MP3s Again

I just thought I’d post here, the comments I left over at On An Overgrown Path in relation to free mp3 downloads of classical music:
My question is this? What proportion of the UK population (and I’ll limit this to the UK for simplicity’s sake), currently purchase classical music CDs? Unfortunately, the BPI, who’d probably have this information, password protect their statistics section of their website.
But it does seem as though in 2004, Classical “albums” made up 2.6% of all sales in 2004 (among CDs), a fall from 4.0% in 2000.
One way or another, we can be certain that a significant proportion of the population do not buy classical music at all. It’s not so much availability of the music that drives this figure, as interest in the music as a whole. There are plenty of very cheap CDs out there to sate interests, and the music’s freely available on two national FM radio stations, to greater or lesser extents. Nonetheless, for various reasons, CD sales in this category are falling.
The reasons, I’m sure, are many and various, probably starting with the marginalisation of music in education. The BBC’s “experiment” showed that there was significant demand. It’s something for nothing certainly. Does giving away something devalue the product? To a certain extent, yes. But it’s quid pro quo. Some of those 1.3m people who downloaded those files, probably went out and bought another Beethoven CD because they liked what they heard. That’s why Gramaphone give away an excerpts CD every month. Sales come off the back of it. Sure, an excerpt or single track is a different thing to a full piece, but if it costs nothing and generates interest in the music, how can it really be bad.
Classical music is seen as thoroughly inaccessible to many people. A completely closed shop. What version of a piece should I buy? Specialist shops and departments in the larger London stores can seem scary places. Opening up the music like this is a toes in the water way of doing things.
If giving away some music gets a few more people interested and listening to the music, can it be a bad thing?
The caviar analogy is false I believe. Aside from the fact that there probably aren’t enough sturgeon left in the Caspian to meet this demand (there’s an international ban on you know!), there’s obviously an inherent cost in giving people produce compared to media that can be distributed either cheaply or freely (Actually, I bet if I stood out in the street in front of Fortnum and Mason handing out tasters of caviar, I probably would drum up a few customers). But if you truly believe that there’s not a larger market out there for music than the shrinking one that is currently buying music, then giving away the music is not going to make much difference. Unless there was someone who held off buying a Beethoven boxed set because they could download a series of mp3s, then you can at least feel good about culturally improving the lives of the masses!
The other link, discussing the commoditisation of music as a result of the increased availability of mp3s is quite interesting. It’s possibly true, but then the same argument could probably be made, to an extent, for CDs and every other recording medium. Is the answer to remove them all and force us to attend concerts? According to research from BRMB (TGI, 2005), only 24% of the UK adult population attended any kind of musical concert (pop/rock/classical/jazz etc) in the last year.
If I’m just downloading hours of pirated material through p2p systems, then no, I’m probably not investing much emotional committment to the music. But if I’m buying it via iTunes, what’s the difference to purchasing the CD via Amazon?
As a whole, we are buying more music these days, so perhaps, overall music is more of a commodity these days. But the medium is irrelvant. More physical CDs are being sold too. It’s more a question of fitting listening to music into our lives. It’s how we listen to the music.
The Britten quotation is interesting, but I think he was on dangerous ground if he required me to travel, possibly hundreds of miles, if I wanted to experience his mass. Far be it from me to disagree with him, but aside from the obvious financial issues that mitigate against this, mightn’t I actually appreciate the music even more, if I’ve had the chance to listen to it on CD before I attend? Aren’t the liner notes the same as the programme? If you haven’t experienced the music live then you haven’t truly experienced it. But second best is better than not at all, surely?