Classical artists embrace digital culture

MANCHESTER (Billboard) - When violinist Tasmin Little announced in January that she would be giving away her “Naked Violin” album as a free download, she tapped into a growing trend: classical music artists and retailers utilizing digital formats and business models.

Since the album features Little performing the works of such little-known composers as Ysaye and Paul Patterson, listeners were unlikely to “buy it on the off-chance,” Little says. But the response to the free download, she says, has been “phenomenal.”

Thousands of tracks have been downloaded, and monthly page impressions on Little’s Web site have increased from 5,000 to 150,000 since the announcement.

“‘The Naked Violin’ is a snapshot,” Little says. “The idea is that people will go and buy (more classical) repertoire.”

Classical fans are certainly purchasing more music digitally; in the United States, digital classical album sales surged 47.7 percent in 2007, accounting for 7 percent of the genre’s 18 million total album sales, up from 4.4 percent the previous year, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Classical digital album sales burst through the 1 million barrier for the first time with a total of 1.2 million units.


Retailers, however, are taking notice of the growth. Universal-owned classical label Deutsche Grammophon launched its DG Web Shop in November 2007. The site generated more than 50,000 music downloads in its first week, according to DG. According to the site, 80 percent of download sales are for full albums as opposed to individual tracks, and 15 percent of sales have been for titles that are out of print in physical formats.

London-based Jonathan Gruber, vice president of new media at Universal Music Group International’s classics and jazz division, acknowledges that the “traditional classical audience have not, to date, fully embraced digital,” but says that high-quality audio downloads have drawn in core consumers as well as classical novices.

Digital music service eMusic, which recently expanded the range of classical music available on its site, says its customers have responded to free downloads. Half the customers who downloaded one of two recent free classical samplers from classical labels BIS Records and Harmonia Mundi went on to purchase additional classical music, according to the service. Of those customers, eMusic says nearly one-third had never downloaded a classical track before.

LSO Live, the London Symphony Orchestra’s 8-year-old label, which has offered digital versions of its recordings via iTunes since 2005, says it now sells more downloads than CDs in the United States.

“Classical music retail is an intimidating environment,” LSO label head Chaz Jenkins says. “With digital, you can experiment and listen to new music in your own time.”

Others claim that digital is levelling the playing field for independent labels. Canadian violinist Lara St. John runs her own indie, Ancalagon, and her latest release, “Bach: The Six Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo,” made 73 percent of its total sales through digital retailers, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

“I adore the fact that it’s possible for my little label to be on the same distribution level (in the digital space) as various behemoths,” she says. “My label has one and a half folks doing what would likely take 50 folks at a major, and yet we seem to be enjoying heaps of success.”