Notes Online

Blogs, podcasts and digital concert halls are the way forward for classical music lovers

Jessica Duchen

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. 

Classical music in itself is not elitist, but the way it has been presented and written about in the past often has been. When I started my blog in 2004, the medium’s early days, my idea was simply to write in an engaging, community-focused way that was readable, personal and gently irreverent, hoping it might draw in new audiences. Now there’s Opera Chic, posting streetwise, sassy material in more than up-to-date lingo, often the first to break the big opera stories, not to mention the gossip. Alex Ross, currently blogging at Unquiet Thoughts for The New Yorker, became a musico-literary star through a beautifully written blog that cross-fertilised his award-winning book The Rest is Noise. Musicians, too, have struck blogging gold: try Joyce DiDonato’s blog YankeeDiva, as effervescent as her singing, or the off-the-wall literary acrobatics of pianist Jeremy Denk at ThinkDenk. 

The resulting sense of an open, inclusive community is hugely significant because classical music lovers can feel so isolated. Concert halls are not always friendly places and listening to recordings is often a solitary activity. Now we’re hooking up. We share views on Facebook, or tweet to exchange frustrations, opinions and jokes. And there are practical concerns. Maybe you play an instrument and want to find chamber music partners. Maybe you’re a composer — how on earth do you get your music heard? Or visiting a new city, how do you find out what’s on? 

The internet is answering the lot. To find a concert or opera, searching by composer, artist, date, location, etc, go to BachTrack, which will tell you in seconds, and has launched a mobile phone “app” to provide information on the move. Looking for like-minded musical people? Join MusBook — social networking, forums, job ads and more for the musically-oriented. Or do you want all the info about an artist in one place, with biographies, videos, interviews and downloads to buy? Plushmusic may have the solution. 

Dilettante Music offers yet another concept, aiming both to support musical careers and attract new listeners. Its founder, Juliana Farha, explains: “Dilettante was conceived as a space where classical performers could find a platform and a voice. I was alarmed by how intimidating classical music can be for people who haven’t been exposed to it. The snobbishness of some of its gatekeepers doesn’t help, but as an avid listener I was convinced more people would listen if they could find a way in.” She sought an approach “that doesn’t dumb the music down or make it ‘cool’, but which is both pleasurable in its style and irreverent in its tone so they’d be seduced”. 

But maybe most valuably, Dilettante has a foot in the real world, with initiatives like a classical club night in East London in July 2008, or a recent competition to find a Digital Composer-in-Residence project, culminating in a concert by the London Sinfonietta. As Farha points out, “The internet is a tool, not an objective.” 

Exactly. With online growth proceeding at such a pace, it’s too easy to forget that music is best experienced as a live, practical experience. Next, perhaps paradoxically, the internet should tempt music lovers away from their computers into shared real-time, whether to concerts, discussion groups or beyond. Still, I’ve no doubt that the spirit of openness online is the most encouraging development to enter the musical world in decades. It puts the future into our own hands: let’s make it bright.

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