Technology and recording sales

One of the problems with looking at historical trends in recording sales is that such sales are driven to a significant degree by technological change. Over the 100 or so years since the first recording of an orchestra was made, there have been constant improvement in the technologies for both producing recordings and playing them back. But only a handful of such improvements appeared to have caused a real upswing in the volume of recordings sold. Trying to analyze trends in recording sales over long periods of time without factoring in the impact of such dislocating technologies can lead to a distorted picture of the underlying demand for classical recording and what drives it.

Looking backwards, it is clear that the switch from vinyl LPs to CDs was the impetus to produce a great many new recordings, although the switch from analog to digital mastering, which happened around the same time, was a factor as well, in that recordings made using digital technologies were perceived as “better” than recordings made with analog tape.

I suspect that the transition from mono to stereo recording in the late 50s also motivated record companies to re-record much of their catalogs, as clearly stereo sound had the potential to be more “life-like” than did mono. And it seems likely that the switch from 78s to LPs also resulted in lots of new recordings, especially as other improvements in the mastering process made new recordings sound better than simply re-releasing old 78s in the new LP format.

The common element in these technological discontinuities, and what motivated consumers to demand new recordings in the new formats, were that the new technologies were both more convenient and perceived as sounding better. It’s also worth noting that these discontinuities, and the resulting sales boosts, occurred at 10- to 20-year intervals, providing plenty of time for the industry to produce a new catalog of recordings of all the major repertoire (and much of the minor repertoire as well) without huge gaps between the resulting sales surges.

So we’re due for another one, right? One real problem for the classical sliver of the recording industry is that a new technology that combines both convenience and better sound is nowhere on the horizon. Downloads are arguably more convenient – at least for some people – but downloaded recordings generally sound no better, and often somewhat worse, than CDs. Those technological improvements that were touted as providing better sound – SACD and DVD-Audio – apparently weren’t enough better than anyone but audio geeks were interested. Surround-sound recordings certainly have the potential to sound better than conventional stereo, but the market for them too remains at niche levels.

So a major driver of new recording sales is AWOL when we most need it.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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