First there was the demise of Tower Records. Now the two Virgin Megastores in New York, in Times Square and Union Square, will close this spring. The future of the recording industry lies with downloading, trends suggest. It is not hard to find music lovers in their 20s who have never bought a physical CD.
Yet recording companies, especially classical ones, continue to churn out CDs, and not just single discs but multidisc boxed sets. To commemorate the centennial of the conductor Herbert von Karajan last year, for example, Deutsche Grammophon released a 38-CD box of his recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic, including the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Bruckner; Haydn’s “Paris” and “London” Symphonies; and the last six Mozart symphonies.
It was marketed as a special limited edition, and about 35,000 copies were issued. Who would buy this daunting collection?
Quite a few consumers, it turns out. In a recent telephone interview Michael Lang, the president of Deutsche Grammophon, said the company expected the entire limited edition to sell out by this fall, a year after it became available.
“Europe and Japan have always been box-set crazy,” he said. “And Karajan is an iconic figure in music.” To attract not just specialist purchasers but also newcomers to classical music, this “low-frills” set, as Mr. Lang called it, was released at a budget price, $99.98, which breaks down to $2.63 per disc, a bargain.
For Karajan devotees or for those who want the main symphonic works of Western classical music in a compact, affordable package, this release would seem enticing. Still, immersing newcomers in one conductor’s take on so much repertory, however great that conductor and his orchestra, is a little weird.
Given the global economic challenges and the trend toward downloading, this might seem an inopportune time to be releasing boxed sets. Still they keep coming, comprehensive surveys of a performer or a composer and sundry collections of more questionable marketability.