March 26, 2007

Inconspicuous consumption

My lovely wife and I had occasion to drop in to our local Barnes and Noble printed matter monstro-mart over the weekend, and, out of habit, I checked the Classical Music book section, which seemed to be, how shall I put it, somewhat less buxom than I remembered. Out of curiosity, I counted, and found that this particular store was offering eighty-three different titles related to classical music—and I'm charitably including books concerning Il Divo, Andrea Bocelli, and Joe Volpe in that total.

Eighty-three is not a lot of books. To put it in perspective, I could have, two shelves over, picked from twenty-nine different tomes on the Beatles alone. (This too is wrong, especially considering that there were only six books about Elvis. But I digress.) Ten years ago, this would have been a cue for much hand-wringing over the red-headed-stepchild status of classical music in American culture. Now, though, I think it says more about the Internet's inexorable pressure on bricks-and-mortar corporate balance sheets than anything. It's a fair guess that a large portion of classical music practitioners and aficionados have shifted their discretionary spending to the Web; it only follows that big chains will be less inclined to devote valuable real estate to books and CDs that the target audience is probably browsing via computer.

The online world is still not terribly friendly to browsing, but I imagine that will change, and soon. What's more, an encyclopedic selection won't be a loss-leader, like it was in the pre-Internet dark ages. I can remember spending lunch hours at the Barnes and Noble in Evanston, Illinois, while I temped at Northwestern for a summer. I liked to hang out in the Literary Theory aisle. Once, a saleslady asked if I needed help, and I said no, I was just browsing. Her disbelief was indignant. "Nobody just browses in Literary Theory," she said. I was polite enough not to scold her for mistrusting a customer that was on the verge of buying a book that had probably sat on the shelf since the store was built. But that was the attraction of those stores when they opened: they were liable to have everything, a tempting thought even if it meant pockets of product that were rarely, if ever, picked over. With the Web, though, every niche and category is equally served, and maintaining such a large retail selection is a fool's errand.

So I wasn't particularly put out at the paltry classical offerings. One way to read Alex Ross's summing up of the current state of classical recording—nobody knows anything, basically—is that small but viable revenue streams have sprung up too fast and too numerous to be tracked with traditional metrics. Marketers won't be able to try and shoehorn all music into one particular distribution model—a recipe for classical disaster in the 90s—because no one model will be demonstrably more successful than any other. Ignorance is bliss.

Still, though: c'mon, guys. Eighty-three? I've come out of yard sales with more books than that.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson said...

I was recently in a branch of a major UK bookseller that had more books on iPods than on classical music...

Mark said...

I can hear those B&N employees now: "Here comes that guy that counts the books again..."

I can't remember the last time I even looked in the classical section of the bookstore to say nothing of that section where they still think they can sell me $19 CDs. But it's not just the classical music section. In my local B&N you might get the impression that the only essayist of note in our culture is David Sedaris.