Classical music bottom of the charts, does it belong there?

Posted 11/22/21

Experts rank classical music as a genre last — citing only a 1% volume share — however professional musicians in the Valley of the Sun point to a stronger tie between symphony and …

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Classical music bottom of the charts, does it belong there?


Experts rank classical music as a genre last — citing only a 1% volume share — however professional musicians in the Valley of the Sun point to a stronger tie between symphony and consumers.

Classical music is ranked last as a genre in a chart based on share of total volume by Music Business Worldwide and Billboard from 2020.

The chart has classical music’s total volume at 1%, total album sales at 2.1%, physical album sales at 1.9%, and digital album sales at 2.5%.

Locally, however, there is a history with classical music. Further, one musician says there is a desire to remain relevant as society evolves into through the 21st century.

The Phoenix Symphony was founded in 1947 and was a part-time orchestra until 1983 when it achieved full time status. The Symphony’s concerts are seasonal programs and offer a variety from Classics, Pops, and special presentations; that are supposed to attract a diverse audience.

According to The Phoenix Symphony website, “The Symphony aspires to perform live symphonic music of excellence, beauty, and vitality at a consistently high level and to address the needs of communities throughout the Valley, meeting their needs through music-based programs.”

There is a difference in what is being measured and what is being sold. The chart refers to recorded music as a product. Phoenix Symphony doesn’t currently have a records contract right now and hasn’t for some time; most classical music symphonies don’t.

Classical music, experts say, is grossly undercounted and although the Billboard chart is valid as far as it goes, some say it has a recorded-industry-sales-bias baked into it.

Art organizations, classical music organizations specifically, do fairly regular concert programming. They don’t have a full house every time, but they do employ a large number of people and overall, they have a substantial number of concert goers.

Pollstar is the go-to guide for sold out tours and they don’t count or even look at classical music tours. Therefore, the tens of thousands of people that are attending classical music concerts aren’t being counted.

Meaning the 124,000 tickets that the Phoenix Symphony did in the 2019 season was not counted.

Jack Wright is the interim vice president of audience engagement at the Phoenix Symphony. Wright values different things about different classical music. A huge part of it for Wright goes back to a quote that Wynton Marsalis used when he was playing classical music and jazz together.

Marsalis was commenting on popular music as a distinction from other forms like jazz and classical. That either complexity in the moment of creation or the complexity on the compositional side makes them bare up to repeated listening and that most popular music currently and historically doesn’t hold up to repeated listening.

You don’t want to hear something repeatedly and yet the complexity of most classical music allows for you to consume it again and get the full experience.

“The level of complexity makes it perpetually engaging,” said Wright.

Wright agrees that classical music doesn’t have much market share and part of the issue is that people are trying to sell recorded music but classical music deals with the elements and the rudiments of music. It doesn’t deal with fashion, and it doesn’t deal with the media and the culture in the moment.

Classical music does not generally come across as dated or in the same time frame as pop music does. As a result, it doesn’t lend itself to capitalist culture.

Alexandra Black, the manager of artistic planning for the Symphony agrees that it is a little sad that classical music is ranked last but not necessarily surprising given the evolution of music from the start of time.

Black did grow up with classical music, so she has a special affinity for it. Black herself was in an orchestra in high school and college.

Now that she doesn’t play anymore and is on the admin side, Black enjoys crafting new programs and finding different ways to put things together. Like pairing a Beethoven symphony with something that might be a little more temporary.

This pairing can also be referred to as popular programming. Popular programming has the orchestra focus more on jazz, R&B, and hip hop. So, there are these ways to introduce people to classical music from things they know whether from growing up or something else.

That is why the Symphony has performances such as their film events, where they have the movie projected on a screen and the orchestra is playing the soundtrack live.

There are artists who are trying to bring classical music to the 21st century.

Although Wright believes it is difficult to do, he also believes that most Americans have a deeper appreciation for classical music than they think they do.

Wright says that the contextualizing that artists are doing today for audiences is invariably getting a response.

According to Black there is a reason to do those shows, to engage and develop audiences – classical music needs to find things that are exciting and new, that cross boundaries.

“It’s a matter of figuring out what appeals to the masses and how it can be incorporated into the orchestra world,” said Black.

Editor’s Note: Kylie Werner is a student reporter at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.


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