Top ten digital stores: where do people actually download classical music?

According to the Nielsen mid-year report, record sales in the US are up for the first time since 2004. That’s obviously great news for musicians and labels, but it’s also good for the record-buying public—more sales means more recordings to choose from.

CD sales for the first half of 2011 are actually a bit lower than in the first half of 2010. The growth has come from an 11% increase in digital downloads. Where are people buying all this music? It’s not easy to find out. I looked around online and found a lot of stories about where people can download classical music, but not much about where people actually do download classical music. “That’s ok,” I thought. “We must have that information.” I went digging in our royalty reports.

Here’s a graph of our digital sales for the whole of last year. I’m using a full year’s worth of data because different stores report their sales to us at different intervals. In each case, I’m counting wholesale revenue because that’s the thing we can most consistently measure. The chart shows sales for Naxos, but I’ve looked at the data for the other labels we distribute, and the overall picture is very similar:


1) iTunes is #1, and has been since shortly after its launch in 2003. With 225 million users, and just about every recording under the sun, it has become the one-stop-shop of choice for many downloaders. Some critics complain about the search engine and the sound quality. I never saw the problem when I worked there, and it seems like customers agree: if you exclude the streaming services (which are a bit different), iTunes sells more classical downloads than all the other stores put together.

2) At #2, we have Naxos Music Library, which offers a streaming subscription service to universities, libraries and music professionals. It’s one of three specialist classical streaming services in the top ten, and it’s very popular. Ask about it next time you’re in the library—you might already have access (half of all American college students do). You don’t have to be in the library to listen, it’s free to use (the library pays for it), and it even works on iPhones and Android devices. If you piled up all the CDs on Naxos Music Library, they would form a stack 1,400 feet high—that’s taller than the Empire State Building.

3) The third most popular online destination is Amazon’s MP3 store. Amazon is also a very popular place to buy our CDs—great news if you prefer a product you can hold, because Amazon keeps growing and with almost infinite shelf space, we expect all our CDs to be available here for years to come.

4) At #4 is the most popular specialist classical download store, ClassicsOnline. It’s run by Naxos, and it sells classical music from almost all independent labels. If you can’t wait for your local library to get a Naxos Music Library subscription, you can also listen to an even larger selection of full-length recordings on ClassicsOnline for a monthly fee.

5) Next comes EMusic, offering a great many bargains in jazz, rock, and pop as well as classical music for indie music fans. Customers commit to purchase a monthly download allowance which doesn’t roll over, so this store works best if you regularly purchase indie music from all genres.

6) & 7) Rhapsody (#6) and Napster (#7) have been around for along time. They both let you to listen to huge collections of music for a monthly fee. Rhapsody has grown a bit lately, but Napster isn’t as popular as it once was. Neither was really designed for classical music, but they still deliver more classical music to customers than all but two of the specialist classical sites.

8) The new kid on the block is Spotify. This Swedish company made waves in Europe with a free service that allowed users to listen to a lot of music and a few adverts, with the option of paying a monthly fee to lose the ads and access playlists through a mobile device. The free service has some limitations, and it isn’t exactly tailor-made for classical music, but Spotify just made a much-anticipated US launch. Even if it doesn’t change the way you listen to classical music, I’ll expect to see this one in the top five at the end of 2011.

9) Classical Archives is one of the oldest classical music sites on the web. It now offers streaming and downloads from a large selection of recordings, alongside the massive library of midi files that made this site famous back in the days of dialup Internet, when downloading a whole album of high-quality audio would take about as long as listening to the Ring Cycle.

10) Of course, there are lots of smaller digital music stores to explore. Between them, they account for just under 3% of our digital sales. Some are small because they’re new, others because they serve niche markets. HDtracks is one of the more popular destinations for high-quality downloads. Qobuz does a great job with classical downloads for the French-speaking market. eClassical just relaunched with an innovative pricing-by-the-second model. The Classical Shop (run by Chandos) offers a nice selection of independent recordings and high quality downloads. We’ll look forward to seeing these stores grow in the years to come.

Where do you go for music on the web? What makes the perfect record store? Use the comments to tell us what you think.

2 thoughts on “Top ten digital stores: where do people actually download classical music?”

  1. As another completely free alternative, I have a site with all my original, royalty free music I’ve created that you can use in anything you want, however you want. You can use them in videos, films, games, apps, on websites, etc. You can monetize your post and use them for commercial enterprise.

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