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Tallying the Most *Popular* Composers

January 13, 2011
New York, N.Y.

While NY Times music critic Anthony Tommasini struggles with the excruciatingly difficult job of selecting the ten best composers of all time — today Debussy makes the cut! — perhaps an easier approach is simply to listen to the voice of the people.

Under the assumption that the classical CD industry is "demand driven" we can easily determine the most popular composers by heading over to (the pre-eminent source of recorded classical music these days) and selecting the "Composers" tab. The web site conveniently displays 100 of the most popular composers with the number of CDs available for each.

Because it was easiest for me first to extract those composers with over 2,000 CDs available, I have left all those in the list and then added the next 4 to round it out to 20. The top rankers are:

I can't imagine anyone not quibbling with this list, but overall, it's not too bad.

And the sheer numbers demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that classical music is way more popular than so-called "popular" music!


That's nice, but where are Mahler and Bruckner??? :(

Mikhail, Thu, 13 Jan 2011 13:52:06 -0500 indicates that there are currently 1,208 CDs available with the music of Mahler, but only 743 for Bruckner. — Charles

Damn you Mozart! My guy is in 2nd place!

— Yngwie, Thu, 13 Jan 2011 13:59:22 -0500

No Satie? Pachelbel?

Gary, Thu, 13 Jan 2011 17:04:27 -0500

I must be dumb but I don't follow....

'And the sheer numbers demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that classical music is way more popular than so-called "popular" music!'

where you being ironic or am I missing the point.

Mike James, Fri, 14 Jan 2011 05:12:40 -0500

I think a key factor in the number of albums of these works is that, with the possible exception of the last two years of Ravel's output, nothing on the list is under copyright any longer.

If a similar, royalty-free licensing could be worked out, I imagine we'd be seeing a number of orchestral versions of "Bad Romance"

James Curran, Mon, 17 Jan 2011 19:47:47 -0500

I'm surprised that copyright adds significantly to the cost of producing a CD. The difference between having to record a full orchestra v a 4 piece rock band must make classical music less attractive as a financial proposition... I have noticed that budget priced labels like Naxos tend to have a lot of string quartets, duos, piano, guitar even, compared to full orchestral works.

Mike James, Tue, 18 Jan 2011 05:50:33 -0500

Everyone knows that recording classical music is cheaper than recording rock groups because no jelly beans need to be provided for the musicians. — Charles

Actually, one of the secrets of the music business, is that recordings don't make musicians much money. Albums are made under a "work-for-hire" contract, and the record company owns the copyright to the album. Rock stars make most of their money off live concerts and their royalities from the songs they write (which is why there are often fierce battles of authorship accrediation, and why every rock musician, no matter how little music they write, has their own music publishing company --- ASCAP rules says the publish company gets a cut of the royalities too)

Ever wonder why The Who continued to play concerts after Keith Moon's death, even though they stopped recording albums? It was mainly so that John Entwistle, who never wrote any of their songs, could have an income. After he died, Roger Daltrey and Peter Townshend stopped touring because they could live off their royalities.

Of course, rock musicians do get a big advance and a small per-unit residual for the recording. Orchestral musicians (except "household name" soloists & conductors) are just getting their flat hourly rate for the recording session. Classical musicians are also more of the "come in, get the job done & and leave" mold than rock musicians who tend to be "moody artists" and experiment while the studio time ticks by, so the recording costs tend to balance out.

James Curran, Tue, 18 Jan 2011 10:18:00 -0500

I think this assumes "most popular" = "best" here, with which I would disagree. And do more recordings of the same work make a composer more popular, or just that one piece (I'm thinking "Bolero" here)? I don't see Stravinsky on the list, although I suppose one might argue "most influential" is not the same as "best" either.

Well, there's no accounting for taste, I suppose. (kidding)

Thanks for your continued writing.

eric bennett, Tue, 18 Jan 2011 22:28:45 -0500

Great comments - much enjoying this exchange.

On the popular v classical phenomenon - listening to the radio last night an item described a new music listening club. You pay some money and turn up at venue and under the supervision of a "teacher" sit and listen to a whole "album" i.e. a 33 1/3 rpm disc... No talking until it was completed in silence.

Ok the surprise was that the albums were "classic" popular - David Bowie, joni Mitchell, pink Floyd etc..

It was designed as an antidote to the track shuffle playing habits of iPod listeners.

Also there was then a debate by various people about - listen to whole album or make up play lists and random shuffle.

Perhaps this is the real difference?

album at a time = "serious" music

track at a time = "something else"



Mike James, Wed, 19 Jan 2011 03:41:13 -0500

I don't like describing music as "classical" (except to refer to a particular era that encompasses Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven), or "serious," or anything like the term "western art music." For obvious reasons I also don't like using the word "popular" to describe the opposite type of music.

For my recent book Programming Windows Phone 7, I wrote a program that organizes your music by composer. To do this, the composer must be the first part of the album name followed by a colon. For an album with multiple composers, the composers can be separated with commas and then followed by a colon.

In the discussion of that program, I refer to the two different traditions in western music with the terms "composer-centric" and "performer-centric." That was the best I came up with after many decades trying to figure out the difference. — Charles

>> I think this assumes "most popular" = "best" here, with which I would disagree. <<

I would argue the opposite: The popularity -> "best".

The word "Best", by itself, it a rather vague term. Popularity tells us the criteria which we use to determine which is "better".

Was Betamax "better" than VHS?

- Betamax had the better image quality, which is why some insist the Beta was "better", but...

- VHS had the better recording length. (*)

More people cared about recording length than image quality, so VHS was more popular and therfore, ovarall "better".

(*) In case you've forgotten, Betamax tapes was 1,2 or 3 hours while VHS were 2,4 or 6 hours, so VHS could let you record a full movie at the best quality, while Beta couldn't guarantee it could get an entire football game even at it's slowest.

James Curran, Wed, 19 Jan 2011 10:08:47 -0500

John Entwistle wrote a few Who songs; "My Wife" and "Boris the Spider" come to mind. Daltry was is least prolific. So Daltry is particulary dependent on touring, and Townshend obliges him. Consider also the Townshend also does lead vocals.

Shawn Britton, Tue, 29 Mar 2011 16:36:41 -0400

Fascinating, very many thanks: but what probably counts most are total sales rather than the number of different CD available. For example, I suspect that although there are numerous CD of Gorecki's 3rd Symphony available, the Dawn Upshaw CD probably sold more than most; so the number of different CD probably is not a true indicator of popularity.

Are sales data by individual CD available?

Robin Howie, Sat, 19 Nov 2011 18:23:13 -0500

No — the number of different CDs is what really counts. Making the recording is the hard part of the job. After that, it's easy to manufacture a whole bunch of duplicate CDs, but they don't really mean anything. — Charles

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