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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The Classic Million-sellers

By Norman Lebrecht / March 21, 2007

Every list of musical greats - and barely a month goes by without one - is, to a degree, subjective. A panel of ‘experts’, sometimes assisted by a public opinion poll, will sift a century of recordings and weightily declare that, for want of a worthier living icon, Maria Callas is the finest soprano ever to have sung. This foregone conclusion tends to reflect the well-substantiated fact that Maria’s face on a magazine cover, 30 years after her death, still sells more newsstand copies than any living classical star, Pavarotti included.

There is nothing scientific about picking musical greats. Even when a historian attempts to identify 100 formative recordings – as I did weekly for two years on this site – the results are infinitely disputable. No-one can prove empirically that Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations album of 1955 is more important than his 1981 retake, or more definitive than prior releases by Wanda Landowska (1933 and 1945) and later ones by Andras Schiff, Keith Jarrett, Ton Koopman, Murray Perahia, Tatiana Nikolayeva and Angela Hewitt. Sometimes the one I really need to hear late at night is wild-man Jarrett on the Munich-based ECM label (sorry, Glenn). It all boils down in the end to a matter of personal taste and the time of day.

The only concrete way to measure musical merit is by testing global impact, and the only way of counting that is by cash-till sales. Easier said than done. Until recently, labels have kept sales figures more tightly under lock and key than executive salaries, and for much the same reason. Many classics sell fewer than 500 CDs worldwide while the men who commission them make half a million dollars minimum without leaving the office. It is hard to tell which truth is more embarrassing.

Lately, however, store-tracking technology and waves of label sackings have brought secrets into the open. Access to store data and former execs allowed me, while writing a history of classical recording (published next month*), to compile for the very first time an all-time bestsellers list.

With facts in hand from internal and external sources, I persuaded every major label but one to confirm their top-sellers, and the one that refused – Deutsche Grammophon – to give me a yes/no answer to straight questions. The resultant list is accurate within normal margins of error and surprising in many respects, not least with the modesty of the numbers. In a whole century of recording, no more than 25 classics topped a million sales, the oldest being Enrico Caruso’s ice-breaker of 1903 and the most recent, in 2002, the first appearance of a Japanese conductor, Seiji Ozawa, at the internationally televised New Year’s Day concert from Vienna.

Remarkably, the top two classical sellers are projects which, like the Beatles, were turned down serially by hosts of record men before they reached the studio. So little faith did Decca have in recording Wagner’s Ring that producer John Culshaw had to apply to the board all over again for each opera, at one point facing a last-minute demand to replace his soulmate conductor Georg Solti with a venerably inappropriate German. Success, though, was instantaneous.

Rheingold, the first segment, entered the Billboard charts in May 1959 one slot below Elvis Presley and is credited with converting more middle-class homes to stereo than any other record. Today, ten years after Solti’s death and with 20 rivals in the racks, Decca’s Ring continues to outsell the pack, standing out as the greatest monument of classical production.

Similar scepticism greeted the plan to unite three tenors in an open-air concert during the 1990 soccer World Cup in Rome. Five major labels couldn’t see the point. The sixth, Decca, signed up on condition that Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras and conductor Zubin Mehta shared a million-dollar one-off fee and waived all royalties. When sales went cosmic, the singers went ballistic. Pavarotti got a million-buck under-the table-sweetener from Decca but the others, empty-handed, took their followup elsewhere. Warner scored heavily at the 1994 Los Angeles World Cup but burned up the brand. Further reunions flopped, accelerating the classical decline.

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons makes number three in the charts, no surprise there. But the artists involved are not the ones you’d expect. The Italian chamber group I Musici, founded in 1952, were the first to play Viv in stereo and their version never went out of print. Nigel Kennedy’s 1989 account and a cut-price release by Takako Nishizaki, Japanese wife of Naxos label owner Klaus Heymann, also topped a million and Anne-Sophie Mutter twice came close.

The best-selling lyric opera is Callas and Tito Gobbi in Tosca, her swansong. Glenn Gould, inimitably, is top solo instrumentalist, though two-thirds of his Bach sales ( I understand) were posthumous. Like Callas and Jacqueline du Pre, Gould sells much better dead than alive.

The top selling concerto is by an American Cold War hero, Van Cliburn, fresh from winning the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow. Herbert von Karajan, the most prolific conductor of all time with 900 entries in his discography, has just one million-selling symphony a 1962 Beethoven Ninth. The only hot hit by a living composer is the unassuming Henryk Mikolai Gorecki’s third symphony of 1993.

What are we to derive from these heartless statistics? Not much in isolation, but any comparison to rock music reveals a discrepancy so vast that that you wonder how classical recording could have been managed corporately by the same forces, or how it survived so long. Against two classics that sold 10 million, there are no fewer than 92 rock epics, led by The Eagles’ Greatest Hits (28m), Michael Jackson Thriller (26m), and Pink Floyd The Wall (23m) yielding almost incalculable profit flows.

The attraction of classics to the accounts department, though, is that while pop artists blow notoriously hot and cold through their careers, a conductor or soloist with an established following can be relied upon to sell roughly the same numbers for each release, with occasional spikes for award-winners. The cumulative lifetime sales of classical stars come pretty close to rock levels.

Aside from two unreachable billion-sellers - the Beatles and Elvis Presley - the next biggest rock sellers are Abba and Cliff Richard at 260 million, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Nana Mouskouri at 250m and Celine Dion at 216 million.

Karajan comes in at 200 million, followed by Pavarotti (100m), Solti and Boston Pops’ Arthur Fiedler (50m) and a 30-million cluster that includes Callas, Leonard Bernstein, Placido Domingo and James Galway. If you ever wondered why labels persisted with classical veterans long past their interpretative sell-by, it is because they carry on selling regardless, generation after generation.

All of which calls into question the industry wisdom of the past decade in slimming down and shutting down classical labels. Few million sellers will ever join the list in future because classical labels staked their survival in the 1990s on ephemeral popsters like Charlotte Church (10m) and Vanessa-Mae (3.5m) and gave up grooming durable talent. The list of the best can be considered closed, an epitaph to a 20th century collusion of art and industry that ended with the Millennium.

*The book appears in the UK under the title, Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness, published by Allen Lane on April 5

and in the US as The Life and Death of Classical Music, published by Random House on April 10

and in Germany, on May 10 as Ausgespielt

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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