By: Ricky O’Bannon

July 18, 2014

Somewhere, something happened on the Internet two weeks ago, and Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman were the beneficiaries.

YouTube views of the duo’s “Con te partirò” shot up 3,146 percent over the prior week, and digital downloads of the song increased 279 percent according to numbers from Nielson SoundScan.

“It went crazy,” said David Bakula, who is a senior vice president of analytics for Nielson. “I don't know what it is exactly, but something went on there.”

The sudden surge might be thanks to Jos Stiglingh, whose (legally questionable) video of a quadcopter drone flying through a fireworks display set to “Con te partirò” went viral over the Fourth of July weekend.

Stiglingh recently changed the background music for the video and apologized to viewers, saying “[I] had to change the music for copyright reasons. I also prefer the original!” Several YouTube commenters offered suggestions on how other viewers could match up “Con te partirò” to the footage, and at least a few said they were first exposed to the Brightman/Bocelli recording because of the video and have legally downloaded the song since.

Even if the marriage of drones, fireworks and operatic singers was short lived, the explosion of interest should teach classical music a lesson that hip-hop, pop and rock learned long ago: The Internet and social media are a great way to get your artists heard.

Bakula said he sees the kind of overnight spike “Con te partirò” received in the data every week, but it’s not a regular occurrence for classical music. In his eyes, last week’s increase for Bocelli and Brightman shows the opportunity of online platforms for genres like classical that aren’t regularly heard by most music audiences.

“You are starting to see these little blips and pockets of growth [for] an individual song, artist or type of music, where this is the kind of exposure that they’ve always needed,” Bakula said. “And they can capitalize on that.”

A decade ago, landing a recording deal that got your CDs on retailers’ shelves was a mark of making it as a top flight orchestra or classical artist. But with traditional album sales in a steady decline, digital downloads and online streams are fast becoming an important way classical fans listen and classical artists find their audience.

In early July, the London-based Official Charts Company released its first classical music chart to incorporate numbers from online music streaming programs.

Billboard — which tracks record sales and song airplay in the United States using data from Nielson SongStream — looks at digital sales in its list of top classical albums. While classical fans were slower to adopt digital downloads than their rock or hip-hop contemporaries, classical digital sales will likely outnumber physical album purchases for the genre within a few years.

Through six months of 2014, classical artists have sold 2.9 million albums according to Billboard, and 42 percent of those have been digital sales. For comparison, digital downloads accounted for only 19 percent of classical album sales in 2009. That six-month figure of 2.9 million is down 24 percent from this point last year — which is a steeper drop off than the industry-wide album-sales loss of 14.9 percent — and down almost 40 percent since 2009.

To make matters worse, gains in digital sales and online streaming haven’t made up for revenue losses as consumers buy fewer CDs and vinyl records. The Recording Industry Association of America released a graph in late June showing a continued profit slide despite growth in music downloads and streaming.

The silver lining for niche genres like classical — and by accounting for roughly 2 percent of total music sales, classical music is statistically considered a niche genre — is that streaming and digital sales might not be as profitable, but they do allow music to find its audience more easily than when CD sales were at their height.

“Anecdotally, we’ve seen a lot more classical albums getting exposure through digital services that probably wouldn’t have that exposure previously,” said Caulfield. “We see that a lot with a lot of genres that are underrepresented in brick-and-mortar retail … if you can actually get your music in front of people, and get it onto iTunes and get it onto Amazon, you can find this huge audience.”

In Los Angeles where Billboard is based, Caulfield said a decade ago there were two or three large music shops with extensive curated classical selections, which in one case was housed in a satellite location. Sorting through a section that might be categorized by composer, recording artist and instrument could be intimidating for someone new to the genre.

“That was really where you had to go to get a lot of classical music,” Caulfield said. “You really had to be a bit of a geek and know what you were doing with classical music or it could be a little overwhelming. Now I think with classical, you’re able to get a lot of people who are casual fans. They aren’t completely familiar with it, but they see it in front of them. And you could say this about every genre of music, but I think it really makes a bigger difference with niche genres [such as] classical.”

The current highest-selling classical album demonstrates just how powerful digital distribution can be. Lindsey Stirling is a self-styled “hip-hop violinist” who developed a following after a 2010 performance on America’s Got Talent, which was shared on social media and online. Stirling’s Youtube channel features classical mixed with EDM (electronic dance music), dubstep and one viral video of Stirling covering the theme from the video game series Zelda dressed as the game’s protagonist.

Crossovers of classical artists doing pop or pop musicians blending classical often prop up the total sales of the entire classical category. While more traditional fans of the genre might be hesitant to deem what artists like Stirling does as “classical,” Caulfield said the way we listen to music online might mean that listeners might seek out a crossover artist but stumble upon something more in the process.

“If you’re watching a Lindsey Stirling video [on YouTube], I’m sure a suggestion might come up for an EDM song but you might actually wander your way into a more traditional artist. And you might have that sense of discovery, which might lead you to buying an album, purchasing a ticket to a philharmonic show, buying a season pass to the Hollywood Bowl out here,” said Caulfield. “That’s sort of the hope — that this concept of streaming music will lead to revenue and also the discovery of music that the listener wouldn’t have the chance to discover in the first place.”

Bakula said it’s difficult to track whether or not a viewer watching a Stirling video also clicks on something like a string quartet later, but he believes that there is a connection.

“Look at some of the other genres. Look at Taylor Swift,” he said. “She's pretty much a pop artist. But she has a lot of country leanings, and she's bringing a lot of people into country music. Very likely, that may be their toe in the water for the genre.”