Sunday, January 22, 2006

Embracing new technologies

I often like to read reviews and articles about the music world by critics in other cities. While doing so today, I came across yet another piece about how symphony orchestras are trying to exploit new technologies as part of their quest to widen their audiences. Here are some excerpts from it by the Chicago Tribune's classical music critic John von Rhein (read the entire article here):
The digital revolution is forcing my techno-challenged generation of classical music lovers to keep up with the latest developments. That's a challenge for those of us who barely know how to operate our CD and DVD players, let alone download MP3 files, burn discs and fiddle with pocket-size portable digital players.

...frankly, the industry doesn't much care, given the fact that classical downloads account for only about 6 percent of the total of all music pulled off the Internet....

Be that as it may, a growing number of classical music purveyors are looking to the new digital technology for solutions to some of their most vexing problems.

Just as it makes sense for recording companies with declining CD sales to jump aboard the download bandwagon, so too does it make sense for classical groups seeking new audiences to break ground in cyberspace....

According to a report out of London, BBC Radio 3 last summer invited listeners to visit the station online and download, for free, all nine Beethoven symphonies. Within days, the station received a boggling 1.37 million download requests. An equivalent commercial CD would take upwards of five years to reach sales figures like that, record company executives said.

On this side of the pond, various classical organizations are looking to the iPod generation to help fill their empty seats.

Last month, the Milwaukee Symphony struck an important blow for getting orchestra-owned recordings on the Web. The orchestra launched its own e-label, MSO Classics, which will draw upon the more than 300 live recordings made for its national radio broadcasts over the last 35 years.

The MSO began by uploading 14 of its own live recordings onto iTunes through an independent Web distributor; those recordings range from Brahms symphonies recorded digitally several years ago, to the world premiere of Roberto Sierra's Third Symphony, recorded in September. They will be available at the iTunes Music Store for three months, after which you can buy them at Yahoo! Music, Napster and other Web outlets.

The point, say the creators of MSO Classics, is not making money but finding new ways to reach audiences.

Now that Milwaukee has created a model for the online purchase of live orchestral recordings directly from the source, one hopes other orchestras that are sitting on vast troves of broadcast tapes, such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, get hip to the times.

The CSO, after all, has been without a radio outlet and a regular recording contract since 2001. Efforts to reach a broadcast agreement since then have failed. Agreeing to license its classical "product" for Web distribution would be an important step out of the wilderness for the orchestra, and I urge the CSO to take it. Even Lyric Opera, itself an orphan of the airwaves, has begun podcasting selected preview lectures....

As with any new concept, downloading classical music off the Web will require some time and a lot of refining before it settles in. I have had both good and frustrating experiences when I've tried it in recent days....

Downloading was agonizingly slow: The 24-minute opening movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto, from the complete recording on EMI with Itzhak Perlman, Carlo Maria Giulini and the Chicago Symphony, took just under an hour to download with a broadband modem.

Which leads me to offer a final reproach to online classical music providers.

If downloads are the future of classical, as industry optimists are hoping, then it behooves Web music outlets such as Apple and Napster to improve the sound quality of online music. That means increasing the resolution and compressing the files of extended works such as symphonies and operas so that they may be downloaded faster and sound on par with what your home stereo system delivers.

Until such improvements occur, I suspect most hard-core classical music lovers will be content watching the digital revolution from the sidelines. And if all that Bach and Beethoven floating around cyberspace isn't presented in a more meaningful way to newbies either, it's likely to turn off more of them than it converts.

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