Classical Music Will Long Play On


Thane Peterson Can classical music survive in the New Millenium? Some recent events make you wonder:

Several big-city symphonies are in financial trouble, including those in St. Louis, San Jose (Calif.), and Toronto. The San Jose Symphony Orchestra recently suspended operation while it struggled to raise cash.

Local public-radio stations, such as WNYC-FM (one of only two classical outlets left in New York City) are paring back classical programming to run more talk and news. As a result, National Public Radio, the biggest producer of shows for public radio stations, is reorganizing its cultural division to focus more on those areas.

Privately owned classical radio stations are disappearing rapidly as big radio companies buy them and convert them to rock formats. Last year, Bonneville International in Salt Lake City laid out $165 million for WNIB-FM in Chicago, which had been valued at all of $8,000 in 1955. In January, Cox Communications bought Miami's top classical station and reformatted it to techno-dance.

Big music companies such as EMI and Sony are cutting back their classical music divisions, while large retailers like Tower Records and Virgin reduce the bin space devoted to the genre.

Sounds grim. But if you look behind the headlines, the news isn't all that bad. In fact, classical music is doing surprisingly well. Many of the problems that plague the genre plague the music business generally. And classical music could come out of this tumult at least as well as other types of music -- and maybe better. "This is an extraordinarily resilient industry for something that's seemingly so fragile," says Jack McAuliffe, a vice-president at the American Symphony Orchestra League, a service organization for orchestras.

Take symphony orchestras. True, there are some in trouble, but the U.S. has an astonishing 1,800 orchestras, if you include youth (but not high school) groups, according to the Orchestra League. That number has stayed about the same for the last decade. Yet during the 1999-2000 season (the most recent for which figures are available), 71% of those 1,800 orchestras generated a surplus, up from 51% 10 years earlier.

ATTENDANCE UP. More orchestras may slip into the red this year because the weak economy has cut into corporate giving. However, despite September 11-related charities siphoning money from many other causes, individual charitable giving to orchestras appears to have gone up from September to December of last year, McAuliffe says. Individual attendance also rose, probably because so many people were touched by the special concerts orchestras organized as September 11 commemorations.

Besides, symphony orchestras almost always refuse to die. In recent years, orchestras in Colorado, San Diego, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and New Orleans shut down -- and all have resumed operations, according to McAuliffe. While San Jose hasn't resumed its season, it is putting on a series of fund-raising concerts, which, if successful, could help it go back to its regular programming next season. And the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has raised an astonishing $29 million from local grandees in recent weeks and is now mounting a drive to rebuild its endowment.

Other aspects of classical music could prove just as resilient. People are always talking about technology rescuing this or that struggling genre, but it could actually be true in this case. With faltering economies and free downloads cutting into CD buying, sales of recorded music worldwide fell to $34.4 billion last year, from $36.9 billion in 2000, according to estimates by ABN Amro.

DOWNLOADING VERDI? Classical sales fell with all the rest -- but for different reasons. Piracy of classical music is relatively infrequent because it takes so much more bandwidth to download a three-hour Verdi requiem than it does the latest three-minute song from Britney Spears. Also, your average classical music fan doesn't fit the profile of a restless young file-sharer.

The main problem is that the advent of CDs in the late 1980s sparked a boom in rerecording classic music from vinyl. But now just about everything worthwhile has been reissued, so that boom is winding down. "It's not that people are listening less to classical music," contends Robert Levine, principal violist at the Milwaukee Symphony and chairman of the International Conference of Symphony & Opera Musicians. "It's just how many Beethoven's Fifth CDs do you need?"

Technology could easily come to the rescue again. Satellite and Internet radio -- to say nothing of Internet shopping -- are ideally suited to niche businesses with the passionately devoted adherents classical music has. Like rock bands, many big-name orchestras are now marketing their CDs themselves, via their own Web sites as well as Internet retailers such as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com.

INDIE BOOST. The London Symphony Orchestra is self-marketing this year's big classical Grammy award winner, a recording of the epic Berlioz opera Les Troyens. A similarly marketed recording of Mahler's Sixth Symphony from the San Francisco Symphony debuted at No. 6 on Billboard's classical charts in February. "The orchestras are really embracing new technology," says Fred Zenone, director of the Symphony Orchestra Institute.

The Internet also is a boon to the feisty independent classical labels that have started up as the conglomerates have retrenched. If you're worried that the genre is dying, check out the online catalogs of such outfits as Harmonia Mundi, Albany Records, and Naxos. They're chock full of classical recordings.

Even as conventional radio and music operators abandon classical music, all sorts of alternatives are springing up, such as satellite and Internet radio services. Take Andante.com, which was started a year ago by a French lawyer. It does everything from sell CD versions of 78-RPM classical recordings to rebroadcast live symphony concerts. And XM Satellite Radio offers 70 music channels -- including a quartet of classical ones -- for around $10 per month. (A receiver can cost several hundred dollars, however.) And NPR is developing a 24-hour stream of classical music that will be distributed to stations via satellite.

NEW AUDIENCE. True, some of these ventures will probably fail. But as satellite radio and consumer broadband connections become more common, classical music may be more widely available than ever before. And with the target audience growing as the population ages -- the median age for classical music goers is the early 50s -- a fair number of baby boomers will probably become enamored of classical recordings, just as their parents and grandparents did at that age.

"We're in a lull because we're going through a technological sea change, but I don't think that means the death of anything," McAuliffe says. Least of all, classical music. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online


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