Classical artists such as Hilary Hahn chart big on Billboard with little sales

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010

On Jan. 14, the violinist Hilary Hahn scored a rare gig for a classical music performer: She appeared on "The Tonight Show." And not just any "Tonight Show," but the "Tonight Show" during the final days of Conan O'Brien's brief tenure as host. Everybody was watching. So it came as no surprise that Hahn's new album, "Bach: Violin and Voice," debuted that week at No. 1 on the Billboard classical charts.

No. 1 on the charts: It doesn't get any better than that. Or does it?

The dirty secret of the Billboard classical charts is that album sales figures are so low, the charts are almost meaningless. Sales of 200 or 300 units are enough to land an album in the top 10. Hahn's No. 1 recording, after the sales spike resulting from her appearance on Conan, bolstered by blogs and press, sold 1,000 copies.

It's not exactly news that album sales in all genres have been declining for years. Nor is it news that classical recordings are not top sellers. "The classical charts have always been looked at as in the 3-percenter club," says Alex Miller, general manager of Sony Masterworks. "Three percent of total music sales are in classical music."

The idea that the classical recording industry is on the rocks, a suggestion raised from time to time in part because of strikingly low sales figures, is generally countered by the assertion that there are more classical recordings available than ever before. And that might be the reason so few of them are selling well.

SoundScan, the company that provides sales data to Billboard, says it cannot officially release exact sales figures to journalists. Instead, all numbers are rounded to the nearest 1,000, so sales of 501 copies are reported as 1,000, and anything less than 500 is "under 1,000." On last week's traditional classical chart, only the top two recordings managed to sell "1,000" copies. Every other recording (including, in its second week, Hahn's) sold "under 1,000." The official total sales of the top 25 titles amounted to 5,000 copies, an average of 200 units a recording (sorry, "under 1,000"). And yes, that includes downloads.

A leaked copy of the SoundScan figures for a single week from the fall tells an equally sad tale. In early October, pianist Murray Perahia's much-praised album of Bach partitas was in its sixth week on the list, holding strong at No. 10. It sold 189 copies. No. 25, the debut of the young violinist Caroline Goulding, in its third week, sold 75 copies.

Is there any point to charting such low numbers? Billboard has wondered the same thing. The magazine has two charts, Classical Traditional and Classical Crossover, and combines them on "We have actually considered decreasing the length of the two separate charts," says Silvio Pietroluongo, charts director of Billboard. Some charts, such as World Music, list only the top 15 sellers. Having 25 positions, he says, "may be a bit much."

Weekly charts are not the best way to measure classical performance, industry insiders say.

"We don't necessarily follow the bump of a new album," says John Q. Walker of Zenph Studios, speaking about the "Re-Performance" release of Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations, re-created with computer technology and released by Sony in 2007. "People hear it and tell their friends, and it keeps riding this wave."

For the Gould album, Walker and Sony were thinking not week by week, but year by year. The sales projections were 40,000 copies over a 20-year lifetime. The album sold 40,000 copies in its first year. "The next 19 years are gravy," Walker says. He is, therefore, not worried that Zenph's latest re-creation, "Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff," released by Sony in the fall, only sold 385 copies in its first two weeks, debuting at No. 7 on the traditional classical charts.

"We do view our projects initially on a three-year basis," says Sony Masterwork's Miller, adding that the Billboard charts show only U.S. sales. "Murray Perahia," he says, "is an artist that we take a worldwide perspective on. A few hundred units in any given week of Murray Perahia in the U.S. is part of the thousands and thousands that we may sell in Germany or France."

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