Past popularity

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 SchickelThe 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.

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  1. Paul MacNally says

    Another analysis found jazz to be even smaller than classical as a portion of total sales. Can’t recall where I read it. Memory still generally good, though, if that counts.

  2. andrew says

    If you remember the Anne Midgette Times article from a few months back, classical downloads were reported to encompass a whopping 12% of iTunes downloads. In general, 3% is the overall industry figure that I’ve always heard.

    I certainly do remember this, since Anne and I are married! We both heard the 12% figure from a friend who used to be in charge of classical music for iTunes. I’d love to get another reading, though. Maybe the percentage has changed, as other things on iTunes have.

  3. David Cavlovic says

    How DARE Schickle dismiss Hank Williams. What. A. Snob.

    That being said, and for all the lamentation about record sales, I don’t think the lack of sales reflects a lack of interest in music. I think that the lure of “owning” a recording is just not the same as it was back in the day. Remember : just about the ONLY artistic experience one could own (apart from books) was music on vinyl or tape. You still had to watch a TV show at the time of broadcast, or go to a movie.

    Today, we can own just about any artistic venture. Or, mor accurately, we have more recrational deversions at our finger tips. Who would have thought, for example, that today, kids would be spending more time in front of their computers instead of infront of the TV?

    This wealth of entertainment has often been ignored as a factor when discussing the relevance of art music in today’s culture.

  4. says

    Does he include jazz in the $85 million sales of good music?

    His dig against Tin Pan Alley suggests that he does not (since obviously those tunes were jazz standards as well).

    I think you’re probably right. It seems strange that he’d leave out jazz, but maybe he just hated nonclassical music so much that he couldn’t remember what was what.

  5. Donald Clarke says

    At a time when every nine-year-old has got $20 to spend on a Britney Spears CD, the music market is horribly distorted. Furthermore, a lot of fans of “good music” are swapping bootlegs and old concert recordings instead of buying new CDs, since the record companies have abandoned the kind of music we’ve been buying all our lives. I have dozens of CDs of music conducted by Charles Munch, William Steinberg etc that these conductors never recorded commercially.

    And yet people over 45 are the largest single age group among CD buyers. See my earlier post (two posts ago), boringly called “Important news stories.”

  6. says


    I agree completely with your basic thesis here that classical music is less popular than it used to be (and that Schickel’s attitude toward popular music is silly) but I have a couple of thoughts about your methodology.

    First, “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.” We do need to take into consideration the possibility that in the 50s the networks were more comitted than they are now to their “public service” obligations (which were actually imposed by the government in the grand bargain of the parceling out of the airwaves). Modern television is, I think, considerably more purely commercial than it used to be. Plus, in the 50s the attitude that classical music was more “serious” and inherently important than other musics was much more widespread than it is today. So I expect that one of the driving forces behind the more substantial classical coverage of that era was a sense of moral and social obligation — in other words, the threshold of audience interest necessary for airing classical music would have been much lower, and using the amount of media coverage as a metric of basic popularity is somewhat suspect. I do think popularity was an important factor, but it would be nice to be able to control for that variable in our estimates.

    As for the amount spent on recordings of classical music, I have two additional questions/observations. First, how did the average price of a classical LP compare to the average price of a popular LP? I wasn’t around, so I have no idea. If there’s a difference, I suspect it’s that classical LPs were more expensive, but that’s just speculation. Second, we need to know more about the spending habits of the different demographic groups in question. Suppose, for instance, that classical music lovers are older and more financially well-off on average than popular music lovers — they might buy more LPs per capita, which would give the impression that classical music was more popular than it actually was. Or suppose that one of the groups was more likely than the other to spend its money on attending concerts rather than on buying records? That would skew the numbers as well.

    Again, I think your conclusions are almost certainly right, but I worry that a lack of clear metrics is giving us an inaccurate sense of just how large the difference is.

    Good thoughts, Galen. Very helpful.

    Those 1950s classical telecasts certainly attracted sponsors. When I showed part of one to my Juilliard class this fall, they were as fascinated by the old car commercials as they were by the music.

    I agree that people in that era thought classical music was important, in ways that don’t have much force now. That’s one of many reasons that record companies had large, busy classical divisions. Though of course another reason was that the classical records made money! A lot of things came together for classical recording in the ’50s — prestige, popularity, a sense of both importance and easy acceptance, and finally the advent of the LP, which created a huge demand for classical recordings that hadn’t been there before.

    As for the age of classical music record buyers, remember that the classical audience wasn’t as old back then as it is now. It’s a myth (as I’ve said often enough in this blog) that the classical audience has always been old, and in the ’50s its average age would probably have been in the early to middle thirties. (Based on studies that show the average age around 30 in 1937 and 38 in the early sixties.)

    But one other factor is very important. Pop record sales hadn’t exploded yet. That explosion began in the 1960s, when album sales started to take off. So in the ’50s, we had an explosion of classical sales, fueled by the LP — no longer did you need a cumbersome pile of 78 rpm records if you wanted to play a symphony. (With pauses ever four minutes.) And we didn’t yet have an explosion of pop record sales. So it’s possible that classical record sales loomed larger than they might have, based on popularity alone.

    Though if classical music hadn’t been comparatively popular, the explosion of classical sales couldn’t have happened. But — finally — I do agree that this is a very sloppy metric, suggestive, maybe, but not exactly definitive. We need a lot more data.

  7. Ben says

    It’s a little naive to assume that “classical music must have been more popular [in the ’50s], or else the networks wouldn’t have bothered with it.” Surely you’re old enough to remember that at the time, television networks were far more inclined to air material for what they perceived as the public good. They didn’t call CBS “the Tiffany Network” for nothing. It was only later that profits (and decreasing public service programming requirements) completely overwhelmed altruism.

    As I said in response to another comment, those classical music shows back in the 1950s had a full complement of commercials. So now we have to assume that the sponsors — like the Big Three auto companies in Detroit — were also into public service. I think it’s just as likely that the shows made money.

  8. says

    Two thoughts:

    1. I would think that a significant portion of “classical” sales today includes music (such as Il Divo, Sarah Brightman, concertos by Sting and Billy Joel, etc.) which would make Mantovani seem like high art. The definition of the genre has veered towards pop as well–“crossing over” to stay alive.

    2. It’s lucky nobody mentioned the 3% when I decided to devote my life to playing jazz, or I would probably be a rich lawyer by now.*

    *Who am I kidding?”

    Good point. Billboard magazine (the trade journal of the record industry) runs two classical charts, one for “mainstream” classical recordings ( I think that’s the term they use), the other for crossover. Sometimes (often?) record companies try to influence which chart a CD will go on, so that (for instance) a crossover CD will look better, going up to No. 1 on the core classical chart, when it might only reach No. 6 on the crossover chart.

    There are two charts for jazz, too, one for “traditional” jazz and the otherr for “contemporary” (again, I think they call it that; it’s been a wahile). I’ve been told that one reason for the two charts is that the traditional CDs would barely chart at all if they had to compete with the “contemporary” ones. Note that these labels don’t refer to the age of the recordings, but instead to their style. Wynton Marsalis would be traditional jazz, and Hiroshima (are they still around? this isn’t my area) would be contemporary.

    I wonder if the same is true for classical — that a CD of arias from some new opera star wouldn’t rank very high if it had to compete on a chart with String. Or did Universal maneuver Sting onto the core classical chart, to give him some classical-styoe street cred?

  9. richard says

    I have found “contemporary jazz” to be neither. Greg, do you still believe that our culture isn’t being “dumbed down”?

    Hi, Richard. It’s easy to find dumb things in our current culture. It was also easy, decades ago, to find dumb things going on then. It’s easy to find dumb things in any era. How do you know you wouldn’t be even more appalled at the culture around if you were alive in the 1920s?

  10. sally says

    The core classical chart needs rethinking, IMO. Sting is currently at the top of that chart, which is questionable. But no way, Andre Rhieu should be there. He is definitely crossover.

    Does anyone know what sales Billboard tracks these days. Is it strictly brick and mortar store sales? Because it seems that’s a very small percentage of cd sales these days. I would think most people buy online from Amazon, B&N, etc. or download from iTunes, etc.

  11. Corbin Jensen says

    You wrote: “those classical music shows back in the 1950s had a full complement of commercials. So now we have to assume that the sponsors — like the Big Three auto companies in Detroit — were also into public service. I think it’s just as likely that the shows made money.”

    No, it’s far more likely that the Detroit motor barons just wanted to buy into a little vicarious east coast establishment refinement, so they threw some ad dollars at classical broadcasts. Both broadcasters and advertisers could indulge in such flagrant acts of ego-stroking vanity because back then, the stakes were still low enough.

    That might be. I guess we need (me included) to stop speculating about this, and find out more definitely what was going on. One wrinkle I’ve just learned about is that not so many people had TVs back then — only half the population, in 1953. So arguably the content of TV could afford to be more upscale.

    I also know that the Ford Foundation funded an arts show (very famous, historically) called “Omnibus,” but it went off the air because not enough people watched it.

    Whether the stakes were higher then or now is arguable, though. In the ’50s, TV was a new medium, and you’d think the people with money invested in it would have strongly wanted to make their investment work. It’s also likely, from what I’ve been reading, that they felt they had to show they were artistically respectable, but I’ll bet that came into conflict with making a profit early on, and that profit won. In any case, the mere fact that they felt they needed to touch that artistic base proves that classical music (and high art in general) had a much higher profile in the ’50s than it does now.

  12. Mark Schwarcz says

    I have a proposal for a metric to gain some measure of the probable waning of interest in classical music. A study could be done of the number of high schools and the number of students participating in their annual school trip to the opera. Comparative data can be obtained by asking middle aged aged people such as myself how many students from my high school were on that charter bus ride with me into Manhattan and comparing that with current figures. Some verification can be obtained by tracking down some of my fellow music lovers who I remember chatting with on those trips. It is far from ideal but if enough imperfect measures point to the same result it should give us confidence in our conclusion.

    Hi, Mark. Good idea, or ideas. Thanks. I suspect that many fewer school bus trips are taken these days to hear classical music. But I’d love to have some numbers. I’ve heard anecdotes about cancellations of these trips, even in the Cleveland area. That’s an important indicator, because many people in Cleveland who are middle-aged now remember bus trips to hear the orchestra when they were in school. The orchestra has so much prestige in Cleveland that peoplel seem to remember those trips as something very important, whether or not they keep going to the orchestra on their own later on.

    The NEA has data showing the percentage of the classical music audience under 30 years old declined by 50% during the 1980s and 1990s, so that’s one objective measure. And of course there are other sources of data showing that the audience used to be a lot younger — or, more precisely, have a much lower median age — than it does now. Which of course means that it had a lot of younger people in it, more than we’d currently see.

    But I’d love some anecdotal data. I do have a little — recollections from someone who went to college in Philadelphia about evenings at the orchestra being a popular thing to do on a date, recollections from someone who went to the New York Philharmonic summer concerts at Lewisohn Stadium as a teenager, and remembering seeing many other teens there. I went myself as a teenager, but have no recollection of what the audience was like. Maybe it’s significant that I don’t remember feeling out of place, but I wouldn’t put much weight on anything so vague.