September 12, 2003
Two dogs that aren't barking

Waffle warning. In my opinion the only reader who is likely to really enjoy this will be me in about ten years time. It's a ramble over pretty well trodden ground. (It is also, and not coincidentally, the first time I've done one of those "MORE" things at this blog, I think.) But it's done now and might as well go up.

Yesterday I was in HMV Oxford Street trawling for more classical bargains. The default price for good recordings that have been around for a while is now about £3, yet they are still trying to sell new stuff for around £16 or even £17. Presumably they'll get some buyers, but not enough to count for enough.

(See what I mean about well trodden ground.)

Two new things struck me, the first something I have been tracking for several years, and the second rather new.

First, the new formats like SACD etc. are still not taking off. You can see what taking off means if you visit the DVD movies section of the shop, or the nearby computer games section. That's take-off! Well, SACD ain't. Certainly not in the classical department. Maybe somewhere else they are selling SACD etc. power ballads. Maybe. Meanwhile, things like the Barenboim Beethoven symphonies in the new format are stuck away in a poky little corner, just beyond that huge spread of Naxos CDs. If they thought they were going to be able to re-record the entire core repertoire like they did when the CD first exploded … well we punters aren't damn well having it. The plain fact is that recording quality reached its peak in about 1955, with those fantastic RCA recordings, and all else has merely been getting all recordings to be as good as those ones were. Good enough is good enough, in fact it is excellent. CDs were the big leap, because they don't get scratched and clicked, which was brilliant. A tiny bit better recording is nice, maybe, but frankly superfluous. We all know that the next big leap forward is getting the music from the Internet and making computers into Hi-Fi kits, a process that is well under way. Another kind of shiny disc in a case is entirely beside the point. It reminds me of digital tape, which always struck me as like lighting a fire with more sophisticated and hi-tech stick-running.

The other thing I have started to notice is that opera on DVD, much to my disappointment, would also not seem to be selling very well. My guess would be price. If you can get classic movies for £9.99 and falling fast on another floor of the same shop, who will pay £30 for an opera? It looked a reasonable bet a few years back, especially when you consider the ridiculous price of live opera. But, we punters are (I'm guessing) guessing that there are big price falls to come, and we are waiting. For a tenner a go, I'd kit myself up with all my opera favorites, such as they are. For thirty a go, forget it.

Of course there is another possible explanation. These new things are selling, but not in shops, and certainly not in shops like HMV Oxford Street. They're selling in specialist shops, but above all they're selling on the internet. You can't yet legally and easily download all this stuff for a quid a go. But meanwhile you can buy it without sweating your way through crowds of tourists or faffing around with car parking. That would make sense.

So, a posting that started out being about classical music ends up being a rumination upon retail selling. Speculation: as genuinely new products come on the market, depending on high-tech, the shops that try to stock such stuff often fail to make a go of it. The punters resort to the internet, and the business is gone. The big shops will never see the thing again, no matter how big the business eventually gets. Internet shopping is a habit - one I've yet to catch, incidentally - and once you have the habit, you don't need shops for the stuff.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:28 PM
Category: Classical music