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Classical music remains immune to malaise affecting record industry

AFP , CANNES, FRANCE

While the international record industry suffers from the blues, the world of classical music is singing along to a different tune -- sales of opera and other "serious" music are holding their own and a trend towards pop-style artists is pulling in new customers.

The major record labels are cutting back on classical repertoire in favor of more accessible "crossover" artists, leaving the way open for the small independent classic labels, said industry insiders attending this year's five-day influential MIDEM international trade fair.

Small German record label Farao is one of the independents benefiting from the general malaise affecting the record giants.

"We are doing quite well so we can't complain," said Felix Gargerle, who heads up Munich-based opera specialist Farao.

Classical music sales remained stable last year, according to latest estimates by the international music industry's trade body, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), according to its head of research, Keith Joplin.

Freeloaders

IFPI data estimates that classical sales remained stable last year at 3.2 percent of total music sales worldwide despite a slight dip in value to just under the one billion dollar mark, he said.

The record industry blames its blues on the millions of freeloaders who illegally download music from the Internet. But with the digital pirates primarily interested in the latest pop hits, the classical business has avoided the fallout.

"You won't find much classical repertoire on the music available on the major Internet illegal file-sharing services," Joplin pointed out. Piracy also affects classical sales less than pop music as copyright on much classical repertoire has expired, he added.

The latest taste for "crossover" music when mainly classical performers get the pop-star packaging treatment is another factor. This is bringing some much-needed cash into the coffers of the big operations.

Joshua Bell's Romance of the Violin album was the first classical CD to make it into the US Billboard pop chart for 20 years, head of Sony classics Peter Gelb said at the MIDEM fair, which closed its doors on Thursday. Crossover, though, has brought a hail of criticism down on the heads of the big labels for "dumbing down." Others have come to their defense pointing out that pop-style, trendy young artists pull in bigger and, most important, younger audiences for classical music.

Independents

The new crossover wave is also opening new opportunities for the independents.

"It's now left to the independent companies around the world to promote the [pure] classical repertoire," UK independent label Chandos Records' Ralph Couzens noted. As a result, "the core classical market in the UK has risen over the last two years," he added.

The increasing availability of classical recordings on DVD Audio and Super Accoustic CDs also are partly to thank for the classical world's resilience, IFPI's Joplin noted.

Both formats still have a tiny share of the global music market compared with the 20-year-old trusty CD, which continues to be the consumers' overwhelming choice. But they have seized a sizeable chunk of the classical market, Joplin added.

The classical market remains tough, however, for the small and financially vulnerable independents, MIDEM participants warned. The planned merger between record giants Sony and BMG could also raise new problems, particularly if the heavyweight labels slash prices to try and claw back market share. A price war could kill off some retail outlets and "when shops die we have less possibility for selling our products," Farao's Gargerle warned.

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