We all know (or we ought to know) that classical music used to be more popular in the United States than it is now. But how can we measure that? Well, in the 1950s the big TV networks showed spectacular classical telecast. That’s one piece of evidence. Clearly, classical music must have been more popular then, or else the networks wouldn’t have bothered with it. But this isn’t statistical data. It doesn’t measure the popularity of classical music, and give us a number that we can compare with anything now.
With this in mind, I was fascinated to find a statistic on record sales, in a 1960 book by Richard Schickel, The World of Carnegie Hall. Schickel says (and I don’t know his source) that $425 million was spent annually on recordings (LPs, in those days), and that “only 85 million of it is spent on recordings of unquestionably good music,” by which I assume he means classical.
Only $85 million — only 20 percent! By our standards today, that’s miraculous. Off the top of my head, I think that maybe 3% of all recordings sold today are classical. (Though to be absolutely accurate, I don’t know what, exactly, that figure measures, which means I don’t know how comparable it is to the dollar figures Schickel gives.
Still, I think it’s clear that there’s no way to measure classical recording sales today that would make them 20% of any kind of record industry total, whether we’d talk about number of CDs sold, number of downloads, or dollar revenue.)
Schickel, by the way, goes on to write the most marvelously dismissive description of pop music I’ve seen in a long time. Subtract the classical sales from that $425 million total, he says, and ”[t]he rest is spent on show tunes, the perversions of Mantovani and his imitators, popular music which seems to get worse and worse each year, and [here comes the best part] imitation folk songs put out by the hacks of Tin Pan Alley and Nashville, Tennessee.” Take that, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline!
But wait — Schickel doesn’t mention jazz, which was unquestionably riding high in 1960, with the likes of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane at or near their peaks. Does he include jazz in the $85 million sales of good music? Then, of course, the classical percentage would be smaller. But still it’s got to have been higher than it is today. There’s no way that classical and jazz together would add up to 20% of current sales.