ONLY a year or so ago you were lucky if you could get more than the 'Toreador' theme from Carmen in ear-piercing monotone blips on your mobile. Hardly an advert for the joys of classical music, but popular nonetheless. Recently, however, classical music has grasped the world of digital music technology to such an extent that there's no excuse now for not having the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra blasting from your phone in full 'true tone' glory.
It's not just ringtones, either. Classical organisations everywhere, including our own Royal Scottish National Orchestra, are offering us free downloads, build-your-own albums, and podcasts with gusto.
What marks out classical downloading from pop-based genres is that classical music has so much more to gain. Digital technology is fast becoming the new vanguard in the fight for audiences.
Chaz Jenkins, head of LSO Live, the go-getting recording armof the London Symphony Orchestra, says that its hugely popular ringtones website, which offers a vast array of LSO recorded ringtones, classical and otherwise, resulted from the orchestra's use of text messaging to alert students to late availability of concerts.
"It was a real stab in the dark, but it's been really successful," says Jenkins. "During an evening, at 8pm or 9pm, someone who got a ringtone earlier in day is obviously in the pub or something, playing their new classical ringtone, and we'll get a sudden flood of five or six people in that short period buying the same ringtone. It suggests we really are reaching new people, even on that most basic level."
The Royal Scottish National Orchestra adopted digital downloading after a Classic Bites concert last year. "It was about mass appeal for new or infrequent audiences," says RSNO spokesman Daniel Pollitt. "We were the first major orchestra in the UK to provide the performance as a download. Everyone at the concert got a password and instructions and 25% downloaded after the concert, which was really encouraging."
Back in London, the Philharmonia Orchestra, who made its first webcast of a concert in April 2005, is now offering MP3 downloads for £1 a shot. In Wales, the WNO streams live performances online, and the BBC recently offered its entire Beethoven season as a free download, as well as podcasting concerts and musical programmes. Beethoven, ever the innovator, would have approved.
...Orchestras are achieving results too. Last year the LSO became the first orchestra in the world to make recordings available through iTunes, the online music store. "We're currently at No 2 and No 7 in their classical chart, which isn't bad," says Jenkins.
He puts it down to the ability to experiment. "When you download, you can listen to excerpts of music which you just can't do in a music store, so you can maybe take a chance on something you've not heard of before.
"In America, where they're about 18 months ahead of us on this, CD sales account for 2%-3% of the CD market, but on iTunes, classical music gets at least three times that share. We're definitely reaching new audiences."