Fate of the classics

Fate of the classicsI HAVE BEEN NOTICING similar patterns in the classical-music recording industry and in mainstream denominations. Let's see: Classical music, whether recorded or in performance, is in trouble. Prices and musicians' fees go up, while the number of listeners is dwindling. Music education has been one of the first items to be cut when schools slash their budgets. So a new generation is maturing without having learned the basics of listening or having acquired taste.

Allan Kozinn noted in the Nerc York Times (December 8) that classical recordings enjoyed a temporary boom in the 1980s, a "sales jolt," when collectors purchased compact-disk versions of records that they already owned. This can be compared to the temporary and illusory boom that mainstream religious institutions experienced in the 1950s when members of the first postwar generation momentarily revisited the churches of their childhood. Call it a "sales jolt," if you like.

But after the boom came the bust. The classical share of the recording market dived from 7 percent in 1987 to 2.9 percent in 1996, the worst year yet. For their part, United Methodist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Disciples and other denominations suffered decline after the baby boom of the '50s and early '60s. As Sunday school, parochial school and family reading programs declined, children no longer knew the basics of the story, and no longer acquired a taste for the classical interpretations and practices of the faith.

In the recording business there is still the occasional blockbuster CD, such as The Three Tenors, or the rare celebrity like Cecilia Bartoli. Mainstream religion still has the pope, who sells well, and a few celebrities to push up sales. Kozinn says that most music buyers find too many of the new artists "interpretively bland." Thus a Herbert von Karajan rerecording of Mozart will sell thousands, while a Claudio Abbado version will stall at 200. My hunch is that a Rahner, Heschel, Niebuhr or Tillich might still outdraw the works of contemporary mainstream theologians among the classically serious in religion.

Another factor here is sales measurement, Kozinn says. Years ago it took months or years before recording companies knew how their products were selling. Today computer technology allows companies to monitor weekly sales figures.

Statistically, the mainstream Protestant cohort is hard to measure. Year in and year out, about 25 percent of the population tell polltakers that they belong to a mainstream Protestant group. But the sophisticated analysts in the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion or the Religious Research Association can count who is regularly at church, who is active in parishes and who gives what, and they come up with much different numbers. The illusion drops.

Meanwhile, other music and other religious styles attract a following. Kozinn compares one week's sales of the five top recordings: for the classics the numbers were: 3,500; 2,000; 2,000; 1,000; 1,000; 500; for pop music: 205,000; 75,000, etc. Compare congregations in a downtown cathedral (if the pope is not there or a cardinal is not being memorialized) or a mainstream Protestant church to Promise Keepers gatherings and Billy Graham book sales. See what I mean?