Price-Point Counterpoint

March 22, 2008

21yus6jx8xl_sl160_aa115_.jpg Most of the talk about the enormous impact of digital downloads of music is understandably about the kinds of music that have the gargantuan, immediate, short-term impact — that is, that elite, tiny percentage of mega-selling popular musics that dominate the airwaves and the iPods of the known world.

There is much to be said about the special requirements of and opportunities for the usually longer 99-cent “songs,” as they are called in the iTunes world, that consist of a movement of a Bruckner symphony or hunk of a Glass opera. But I’m struck by the new power demonstrated by a paragraph in today’s New York Times — a kind of power I haven’t seen much discussion of. A review of a piano recital tells us that

Improbably, on the day of its release, March 11, his “Art of Fugue” recording went to the top of the classical music charts of both Billboard and iTunes. It was featured on the iTunes home page, along with Snoop Dogg and U2. What better proof that the availability of classical music on the Internet is attracting curious new listeners?

What is said of “curious new listeners” is undoubtedly true. But I’m a listener who already owns several recordings of Die Kunst der Fuge, and I’m fascinated by the effect that those several sentences, as I was reading them online before it was daylight outside, had on me. The effect has implications for my musical life, for the music industry (if the accurate but to-some-off-putting word may be pardoned here), and for a truly global economy.

As it happens, I had been offered a ticket to the recital in question, had very much wanted to attend, but regrettably had another engagement. The review therefore served a special purpose for me in reporting on something I would like to have heard for myself. In this instance, music journalism did what it does too seldom: it fed a desire for the experience that was being treated in the article. I very much wanted to hear what Mr. Aimard does with these fugues, and I congratulated myself that the review pointed out that I could do so with two or three clicks on my laptop.

Now, just a few years ago, I’d have had to look at my watch and calculate how many hours remained before Tower Records would be open, ask myself if it was worth a trip through the forecast cold and snow, count the cost of $16.98 (plus $4 for public transportation), possibly calling ahead to see if it was in stock, fitting it into my schedule, and hoping that I would be in the mood to hear a pile of contrapuncti when the time and opportunity arrived to do so.

Instead, before I could make a pot of coffee, I had the whole album, including a file with the booklet contents, ready to play exactly when and where I want it (in this case, now, along with that coffee), and for only $9.99. No muss, no fuss. Stoking as this is, I’m even more fascinated by another point: the probable dramatic economic impact upon the exchequer of the performer and Deutsche Grammophon of a few sentences in a review. Unless I’m wrong, the easy and immediate availability of the recording makes the potential effect of a review far, far greater than it has ever been before. While I think Anthony Tomassini is quite correct about the curious, new potential consumer of the most esoteric fugues ever composed, I’m naturally interested in the less financially crucial impact on a hardened consumer like … me. But if we add to the impact of the Times review that of a review an experienced user, or articulate newbie, could now post on, say, the Amazon site, the influence of a consumer — assuming he or she can make a persuasive case — can add significantly to the sales of this new release.

Our sway over sales — both Mr. Tomassini’s and Joe and Josephine Laptop’s — was undoubtedly less, and certainly far less immediate, when even a mail-order as convenient as that provided by the best online retailers or a visit to the record store was required to achieve what I did by a little wrist-action.

(Not to be forgotten, of course, is the fact that my habitual CD outlet — the Tower Records at Lincoln Center — has now been closed for some time. And this was not the loss of some peripheral boutique; this had been the store that sold more classical recordings than any other store in the entire world. Gone without a trace.)

It is also worth noting that the popularity of the hit CD/download was what allowed Mr. Aimard to schedule for a whole long first half in Carnegie Hall some of the most recherché items that the repertory affords (read “box-office poison”) exactly as touring rock bands have done with the songs on their new albums for years. Concert tours in support of a major classical CDs may now come to have much greater effect than in the past.

I downloaded the album onto my MacBook Pro, which I happily anticipate having with me in some coldly impersonal hotel room sometime to do for me what having the complete chamber works of Poulenc downloaded did for me when alone in a Paris pension last April. I’d be unlikely to carry around CDs of all that music.

We are all part of the iPod Generation now.

Oh. And the recording itself? Superb, life-affirming, awe-inspiring. Check it out.

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2 Responses to “Price-Point Counterpoint”

  1. […] 24, 2008 And it’s not just digital music downloads. The current Atlantic has a stimulating article on how the experience of the music industry may […]

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