Thursday, March 22, 2007

Not knowing much

Alex Ross has been investigating the classical music sales numbers racket. As might have been expected, it's a story of niche markets within niche markets. Classical music (and, we may presume, new music) is not a game that is played only by a small set of major players. Instead, the sources and marketplaces are many and widely distributed (often off-shore). Sales figures are often a carefully constructed fiction, a balancing act between suggesting, to the public, great success and admitting, to tax authorities and creditors, great failures. There simply aren't the large sales numbers from a few well-known market-leading products required to create the kind of stable, reliable, and meaningful numbers required to generate useful statistics. Moreover, there is some evidence that classical music has a long tail effect and is difficult to compass in terms of seasonal or annual sales. We do know that the market is small, relative to the bigger pop markets. We know that many - if not most - participants have to be producing recordings for reasons other than significant income production. But we also know that the market must be large and profitable enough in some niches that some small number of people actually earns money from it. But in sum, we don't know much and our predictive power is limited.

Part of the problem is that once commodified, any music has some potential to cross into other markets -- Frank J. Oteri has noted the presence of some Indian classical music recording in a recent 1001 list; Oteri was concerned about the absence of classical music from the list, but those Indian classical recordings (Hindustani repertoire from artists with reputations acquired from association with western pop musicians) entered the list as a form of western pop musics, not as Indian classical music. (In India itself, classical music recordings are also a microscopic part of the music market which is dominated by the local popular and film music genres. It is fascinating, by the way, to listen to pop music in a country like Indonesia, where western and Indian pop musics are relatively equal in popularity, despite any marketing advantages western products may have).

The brightest perspectives, methinks, for recordings of new and experimental music, lay in two directions. On the one hand, there are cross market and long tail effects, in which, in the past, a Beatles listener might get hooked on Indian classical music via curiosity in the music that got George Harrison so excited. Today, I am told by a friend with expertise in both pop and new music, someone who likes The Arcade Fire may go on to Owen Pallett and then on to Corey Dargel (I don't know any of this music) and pretty soon she or he has landed in one neighborhood of Newmusicland. But that strikes me as relying on an arbitrary and unpredictable chain of connections, and risks Pop's version of the Kronos mechanism (Kronos ate his children, pop music eats its children, as well as its cousins, ancestors, and neighbors). On the other hand, new musicians have an expertise in maneuvering on the margins and within a niche, and all signs of the market for recordings to come, point to one that is increasingly uncentered and niche-oriented. This is a phenomena that scares the bejeezus out of the big pop record companies, and they're scrambling to assert rights and privileges in a market that is increasingly resistant to their old bag of tricks and charms. So, and writing only as someone who doesn't really do recordings and will readily admit to not knowing much, perhaps there's an opening here, and relative obscurity can be turned into useful experience.

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