Mood-Based Playlists Grow Classical Music's Revenue, Cache With Young Fans

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Zimmer (seated, center) performed during the second weekend of Coachella in April.

Diehard Bruce Springsteen fan Brandon Shaw used to rock out to The Boss almost exclusively -- until the 27-year-old started streaming Spotify playlists such as Brain Food and Deep Focus in his office about a year ago.

Now he has some new obsessions: pianist Ludovico Einaudi and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

"I certainly have a broader appreciation, knowledge and passion about classical music now," says the former White House staffer, who discovers composers all afternoon as he reviews spreadsheets.

Classical music is undergoing a revival as mood- and activity-based playlists on streaming services turn young listeners on to instrumental tracks -- and pique their interest in the artists behind them. Spotify's Intense Studying playlist has 1.4 million followers, while Peaceful Piano counts over 3 million, fueling a 70 percent spike in classical music streams from the same time in 2016, according to Nielsen Music. Universal Music Group's streaming revenue for classical music is up 50 percent so far in 2017, building on UMG's even larger double-digit gains of 2016, while composer Hans Zimmer performed at the Coachella festival in April alongside headliners Radiohead, Lady Gaga and Kendrick Lamar.

"You meet people at gigs, and they'll come up to you and say, 'My 14-year-old turned me on to your stuff,' " says Max Richter, the prodigious German-born British composer who scored the HBO series The Leftovers. "It's a really interesting situation."

Classical streaming gains are helping offset declines in sales of classical CDs in the United States, while classical revenue worldwide is growing, according to UMG. Dickon Stainer, president/chief executive of UMG's Global Classics division, says that he sees more room for growth in China, where fast-growing new streaming platforms are replacing piracy and helping record companies monetize Western classical music. It's already hugely popular there, with piano virtuoso Lang Lang starring in TV ads and some 50 million children studying piano, says Stainer.

Radio is experiencing growth, too. Sam Jackson, managing editor of Classic FM, a U.K. classical radio station, is seeing the greatest listener spike among 15- to 24-year-olds, with a 4-year-old caller recently requesting to hear "something bouncy" while making cakes with his grandmother. "Younger audiences don't think that classical music is for pensioners and posh people," says Jackson.

Thirteen-year-old Declan Carney says that he discovered one of his favorite pieces of music, "Waltz No. 2" by Shostakovich, on a Pandora station created by Star Wars composer John Williams.

"I was like, 'This is amazing.' So I looked it up," says Carney, a Long Beach, Calif., middle-schooler who now creates his own classical playlists on YouTube.

Graham Parker, president of Universal Music Classics U.S., says that the reason for the boom is simple: "You're finding this music in every inch of your life."


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