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

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010; C01

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."

Exact sales figures for those other countries were not available, but they appear to be higher. The soprano Anna Netrebko broke into the top 10 on the non-classical charts in Europe with a recent release. And Cecilia Bartoli's "Sacrificium" is said to have sold 300,000 copies worldwide since its October release -- and 12,000 in the States.

There's evidence that people in the industry look carefully at the weekly charts, nonetheless. The hip string trio Time for Three just released its first major-label recording, "3 Fervent Travelers," this week -- more than a year after hitting the charts with a self-produced CD. Hoping to get noticed for the Grammys, the group registered that recording with SoundScan. It happened to be a week when the trio was appearing with the Indianapolis Symphony and selling CDs in the lobby.

"We sold more CDs than most groups sell in that bracket of time," Nick Kendall, one of the trio's violinists, said in an interview in the fall. "We started charting after the first week of SoundScan." The label E1 (formerly Koch) promptly picked the group up. The numbers that allowed this stellar rise to fame? "We sold over 200 CDs," Kendall says.

The classical music field is caught in a perpetual bind when it comes to mass-culture benchmarks. On one hand, it wants to aim higher, presenting great art for perpetuity. "Our goal is to build artists," Sony's Miller says. On the other hand, it searches for signs that it matters in the larger culture, in which it is increasingly marginalized -- signs such as winning Grammys, which will be doled out Sunday and which, like the Billboard charts, are of questionable significance for classical music.

If classical music can't make money, it can't stay alive. And it's notable that recordings appear to do worse than concert ticket sales. If everyone who attended the National Symphony Orchestra on a given night bought a copy of the same album, that album would leap to the top of the classical charts every week.

Are the low sales figures a sign of the field's decline or that the charts are outdated? Miller says the charts are not for consumers, but for those within the field.

"You need it for historical context," he says: to measure how an artist is doing relative to his or her past chart performance. (Joshua Bell's "At Home With Friends" "sold more in its first week than any other Bell record.")

"There is a relevance there," he says. "It has to do with retailers, to try to convince retailers" to give the recordings more prominence. And, it is suggested, with journalists.

"Yes," Miller said. "It helps to build the story." The story that's told to consumers to persuade them to buy a recording and watch it shoot up the charts. In classical music, every single album sale does make a difference.

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