Classical Music Sells Millions Of Records!!!

Times are tough in the recorded music business with sales revenues declining significantly and regularly this century. Times are particularly tough in the classical music part of that business with its decline outpacing the market at large.

John Culshaw and Solti (in Plimsoll’s) in the Studio working on The Ring.

We’ve been reading Norman Lebrecht’s marvellously pacey race through the history of classical recording in his book “Maestro’s, Masterpieces and Madness” and would recommend it to all people interested in the story of the record business.

At the end of the book, Lebrecht lists all the classical records that have sold over 1 million records. There are only 25 of them. The first record to do so – and clinging on to the list at #25 – is Gaisberg’s recordings of Caruso. Only ten classical recordings have shifted 3 million or more. The top 5 all time sellers are as follows

1. Wagner Ring – Solti (Decca) 1958 – 1965 18 million. Produced by Decca legend, John Culshaw, this is “a better record than Sgt Pepper” according to its fans. Here is an excerpt from a BBC documentary about the making of the records, starring Solti’s strange jerky style conducting and Culshaw’s calm comfortings. Style fact: Decca engineers (and Solti) wore white plimsolls when in the studio to avoid causing background noise.

2. The Three Tenors (Decca) 1990 14 million

3. Vivaldi: Four Seasons (Philips) 1959 9.5 million

4. The Three Tenors 2 (Warner) 1994 7.8 million

5. Canto Gregoriano 1993 5.5 million

No, its not Peter Sellers….it’s the man who recorded Rolling Stones, The Who & The Eagles

This is Dick Swettenham and, unlikely as it perhaps appears, he contributed to the sound of many of the greatest rock and pop recordings ever made.

He also helped invent the recording equipment industry. Until the late 1960’s studios largely made their own core equipment; it was only in that decade that the number of studios in the market reached sufficient numbers to warrant manufacturers entering the market to supply desks etc. to the market in general.

As Dick himself wrote on the Helios website: “Up until the 1960s the studios of major record companies and broadcasters designed and built their own sound mixing consoles in-house, with full-time staff in design labs and workshops. Only a few companies such as Marconi in the UK, RCA in America, Philips and Telefunken in Europe offered standard product, mostly very conservative in design and aimed mainly at radio stations. Development work at Olympic Sound Studios in London – where I was technical director, having come from Abbey Road – advanced on the same do-it-yourself lines as other big studios, with its own workshop, catering for the increasingly sophisticated requirements of popular music recording and effects processing.”

Dick built desks that worked in Olympic Studios during it’s glory years from the mid-1960’s to the late-1970’s and recorded some of the high water marks of the rock genre including key records by The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Eagles. Here is one of the desks from 1965.

He then set up a company to manufacture desks and sell to other recording studios. He called the company and the desks “Helios” (the ancient Greek god of the sun). Helios were sold around the world and particularly to Chris Blackwell’s Island company (one pictured below) for whom Dick also worked. He also made a Helios desk for The Beatles short-lived Apple studios. One of the beatiful Island desks is here:

Here is another picture of Dick from the 1960’s:

Although Dick has sadly passed away, you can still buy Helios products here, and the desks remain used and coveted around the world.

You can see Dick Swettenham in action in Olympic Studios in 1966. He is working the tape machine at 4 minutes 53 seconds. (the section of the film featuring the then recently opened Olympic Studios begins at 4:48)