Heavy chart action

It was true in the days of American Bandstand, and it’s true today: you can boost the sales of your recording by a TV appearance. And yes, that goes for classical music too:

On Jan. 14, the violinist Hilary Hahn scored a rare gig for a classical music performer: She appeared on The Tonight Show. And not just any Tonight Show, but the Tonight Show during the final days of Conan O’Brien’s brief tenure as host. Everybody was watching. So it came as no surprise that Hahn’s new album, “Bach: Violin and Voice,” debuted that week at No. 1 on the Billboard classical charts.

You knew there was a catch, right?

[S]ales figures are so low, the charts are almost meaningless. Sales of 200 or 300 units are enough to land an album in the top 10. Hahn’s No. 1 recording, after the sales spike resulting from her appearance on Conan, bolstered by blogs and press, sold 1,000 copies.

Farther down the chart:

In early October, pianist Murray Perahia’s much-praised album of Bach partitas was in its sixth week on the list, holding strong at No. 10. It sold 189 copies. No. 25, the debut of the young violinist Caroline Goulding, in its third week, sold 75 copies.

Of course, the charts show only US sales; most classical recordings are aimed at the worldwide market, and you have to figure that Perahia, at least, is a big name across the pond.

But Hahn is no slouch. This is her second debut at #1 — and the first, amazingly, was a pairing of concerti by Sibelius and Schoenberg, released in 2008. I have to admire anyone who can get anything by Schoenberg this high up the charts, especially something the composer himself described as “unplayable.”


  1. Lisa Paul »

    1 February 2010 · 11:27 am

    Wait, I’m not sure I’m buying this. When Hahn appeared at the San Francisco Symphony, there were at least several hundred people lining up to buy her CD. The Symphony store had to start taking orders for later delivery.

    Maybe the Billboard Classical charts have some sort of skewed criteria, like only counting CDs sold in Classical Only music stores, in major cities and sporting red doors.

  2. CGHill »

    1 February 2010 · 11:35 am

    It may actually be something like that: retail stores report to Soundscan, whence the numbers come, but I’m not sure if nontraditional vendors (like the SF Symphony) get their numbers figured into the mix.

    Downloads do count, at least from the major vendors.

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