Menu Sidebar

How much is a [classical] recording worth?

“How much is a recording worth to you? What’s its value – both artistic and in monetary terms? This is something that’s been brought into question quite starkly in recent years. Firstly, the increasing numbers of super-budget back-catalogue reissues – or even new recordings from the likes of Naxos – have caused many a buyer to pause a little longer before shelling out for a full-price disc. More recent still, the rapid developments in online music – first downloads, then streaming – have made most of the history of music available for free or at the very least through an astonishingly good value subscription model.

How things have changed. An industry colleague this week told me of the price to a record collector, back in 1963, of Herbert von Karajan’s first Beethoven symphony cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic, issued by Deutsche Grammophon (the Ninth Symphony is the subject of this month’s Classics Reconsidered – see page 108). The eight-LP set, when purchase tax was added on, cost £14 and 8 shillings (£14.40). At the time, the average British weekly wage was about £15. In the US it cost $47.98 – about 40 per cent of the average weekly American wage at the time, but even so, still a very significant investment. (As indeed was DG’s in making the recording – the label spent 1.5m Deutschmarks and had to sell at least 100,000 to break even. They need not have worried as, one decade on, it had sold 1 million copies.) The set’s just been remastered and handsomely packaged. You can now pick it up for about £45, less than a tenth of today’s average weekly wage.

via How much is a recording worth? |

(I’ve added the word “classical” above; the excerpt comes from Gramophone, a classical music magazine. Readers on the site know it’s not referring to a pop or rock recording.)

While music sales have been decreasing, no one seems to have addressed the fact that the cost of music has dropped as well. Not just from the extreme mentioned above, but the price of an album. If you look at the standard $10 price of a download, that’s just a baseline. While iTunes doesn’t discount, Amazon does, with steep discounts on many new and popular albums, with some for just $3 or $4.

In classical music, the precipitous drop in per-disc price has been astounding, and it’s certainly a good thing for those who buy a lot of music. Yes, new, single CDs by big names cost the same, but lots of classical music can be had for a pittance. With the price of box sets dragging down the general price of CDs, it’s increasingly difficult to justify full-price any more. Even small box sets – say, 5 or 6 discs – are now sold at the price of a single disc, while bigger sets often come in at $1 – $2 a disc. A set that once would have cost hundreds of dollars, such as Vladimir Horowitz Live At Carnegie Hall (, Amazon UK), is only $106 or £72 on Amazon as of today.

It’s tough for the recording industry to keep a balance between these low prices and profits. With classical labels selling fewer copies of each release – nothing sells like the million copies of the Beethoven symphonies mentioned in the article – it’s harder to break even.

Subscribe to the Kirkville Weekly newsletter:


  1. Speaking just for myself, things can be too inexpensive. Unless I know the product I’m buying very well, so I can intelligently judge the quality, something that seems too inexpensive to be true just makes me think it’s cheap, that there’s something off about it, and that I’d be better off waiting to see if I can find something of more genuine and verifiable quality. Goes for physical goods as well as virtual ones.

    This is especially true about something complex, and to me, mysterious like classical music. If I’m going to invest not just the money to buy a recording, but also the time to listen to it, I want to make sure I’m going to get a good experience from the product. I wouldn’t want my first impression of something that is new to me to be made poor, therefore turning me off with a bad first impression, simply because I bought the wrong version of something that when well presented is very good. I don’t know enough to be able to differentiate between “this sucks” and “they’ve butchered a beautiful thing.”

    That may sound ignorant, because of course it is. I’m ignorant about classical music (and jazz, and blues) but interested in becoming less ignorant about them. I also have limited time, as we all do, to learn a lot about a new thing. I don’t want to waste time and money on bad examples that will leave me poorly informed due to subpar experiences. It makes buying music difficult.

    As the old adage goes, “If it seems to good to be true it usually is.”


  2. Would be helpful if you posted a link to the Karajan set as well.

    Would be even better if Amazon supplied music (esp. classical music) in lossless FLAC and/or ALAC rather than MP3.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Writings about Macs, music, and more by Kirk McElhearn