What's on Beethoven's iPod?
We're constantly hearing words of doom and gloom about the threat that the internet poses to the music world. It's become virtually synonymous with illegal downloading. You'd think that the sole intention of anyone with access to the web would be to close down well-meaning traditional media and starve musicians. But there's another way to look at the internet as far as classical music is concerned — it is the single biggest opportunity that has ever come into being.
The explosion of classical music activity online has been positively dizzying. As always, some initiatives succeed and others don't. Those that are sales-based can enjoy mixed fortunes. Some never get off the ground, but iTunes has been so successful that we take it for granted. And the start-ups continue. This spring's projected launch of a new company called iClassix promises more than just standard downloads to buy as the organisation is also making music films of its own. A select few sites, though, are already emerging as clear winners in the online race, through staying power, creativity, innovation or adaptability. The common ground among them shows where the customers' hunger is — and where it had probably been for some time until this heady decade threw open the doors.
First, the classical community has felt let down by the way music has been marginalised in the media — and it is angry. There's nothing as creative as anger. Classical music has been shoved aside into minority corners of TV, the largest record companies churn out crossover ad nauseam, and classical music on UK radio is confined to two stations, both equally patronising in totally different ways. But now musical practitioners can take matters into their own hands, and they have been rushing online to redress the balance. Cellist Robert Cohen, for instance, has started a series of podcasts at CohenPodTalks in which he is making available free his own in-depth chats with key thinkers of the arts world, such as Sir John Tusa. He told me that he has done this because he feels such discussions should be available on the radio, but they're not.
Cohen works with the ex-BBC presenter Tommy Pearson, who is now doing a roaring trade as independent film-maker for clients such as the London Symphony Orchestra and EMI. The short films they commission, he says, are "not promotional videos as such, but tools to help to engage the audience with the artist's insights and ideas". His aim, he adds, has always been "to supply the quality material that the broadcasters are no longer offering on TV". Today, most top British orchestras offer podcasts, if not videos, on their websites. The Berlin Philharmonic has gone further, developing a "digital concert hall" and selling tickets for it.
The trend is towards democratisation, informality and community-building, transforming the tone in which music enters discussions in daily life. Part of this is driven by Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, as well as a plethora of blogs that are pulling the discourse kicking and screaming into the 21st century.