Classical Music Pt.II: Digital & Social Music



The Music Void’s Chris McLellan continues his introductory 3 Part series on the issues confronting the Classical sector across the music value-chain. In Part 2, he desribes some of the latest developments in the digital and social music space.

While it might not have the reputation for it, classical music is beginning to make serious in-roads into the digital and online spaces which have been predominantly the haunt of the more popular genres of rock, pop and indie.

This post will look at a few of some of the more interesting players in an area that is certain to play a massive role in the future of classical music.

Digital Sales Significant

Now that the MP3-only battle is all but won, it’s all becoming a little same-ish on the music store front, with the likes of iTunes, Amazon and Napster seemingly happy to differentiate primarily on price and library size.  But do these rather vanilla offerings appeal to the more discerning classical music buyer?

This raises the question of just how ‘important’ the classical music buyer is to such online stores.

Sean Hickey, National Sales & Business Development Manager for Naxos America offered the following analysis;

“Ask any service provider such as iTunes, eMusic or others what percentage of their sales come from classical. I think you’ll find it over 12% and in some cases significantly higher. In the physical realm, classical has never represented more than 5% of sales in the US, even with all of the wildly successful crossover artists on the charts. It’s very nearly 3% on any given sales week. As downloads, people are often willing to try a track or two from a somewhat obscure composer or artist, and even spring for a full album download more often than not.

I’m amazed how deep the DSPs go into the sales of the Naxos catalogue and that of our labels. Could iTunes be doing more to promote classical music? Most certainly. They’re a great supporter but they don’t have the intuitive search functions that hardcore classical fans require and that their counterparts in the physical online world offer. When they get there, then offer lossless or higher-quality downloads, such as Classics Online, they’ll be a still stronger force.”

Web Stores – Raising Their Game?

The UK’s Passionato was founded by music industry veteran James Glicker (formerly of Sony BMG Classical) and is an excellent example of a web store/portal giving a target musical audience the types of features it deserves.

The service not only offers tracks at high quality 320Kbits/sec MP3 files (or lossless FLAC files), but they also include a wealth of track information about the composer, performers and venue that would make an iTunes product manager blush.

All Passionato tracks are DRM-free, so they can be transferred to any computer or portable music player or burnt onto a CD.  These features combine in order to appeal to the type of person who will think of nothing to purchase top-of-the-range speakers in order to appreciate every nuance of a performance.

Another pioneer in the classical digital space is Akrivmusic. Launched in February of 2002, this digital store (CD mail order and downloads offered via iTunes) has been designed as an online retailer exclusively focused on the classical music buyer. According to their press;

“The design of the website is built around a normalized data structure for classical music, allowing users to quickly and easily find virtually any classical recording in print. Fulfilment of CDs and DVDs is direct to consumer from a network of over 20 distribution warehouses.”

But while the classical track download business seems to be on fairly sound footing, can the same be said for classical’s penetration of music subscription services?

Established brands like Last FM, Rhapsody and LaLa do offer perfunctory classical content, but very little that’s special or compelling, and clearly their focus remains on appealing to the mass-market, popular music consumer. But are things beginning to change?

In February 2009, music subscription service ‘du jour’ Spotify announced a deal with Naxos which will see over 100K classical tracks added to the steaming service over the coming months. A quick look at the comments on the Spotify blog would indicate that this has been welcome news to their subscriber base. I did find it interesting that several users mentioned that it would be a nice feature to allow for searches ‘by composer’.

This is exactly the sort of feedback that online music services should really sit up and take notice of as they try to forge unique and meaningful paths to niche audiences. Discovering music by composer, instrument, musical epoch or even time signature could be prove highly interesting to the more sophisticated music consumer. Why not offer it to them?

Classical Radio Online

Perhaps unsurprisingly, classical radio stations have also created some excellent examples of how to present and sell classical music online, and most of these have also done a tie-up with one music store or another. A good example of this approach is Classic FM in the UK which has done a deal with iTunes for track sales.

In this case, trusted radio personalities provide the primary recommendation engine. In the very subtle world of classical interpretations and variations, perhaps it’s this sort of personal touch that will prove critical to achieving healthy download sales.

Classical & Social Music

From music stores and subscription services, we venture into the social music space. Surely this is one area that will be absolutely vital to classical music’s digital future.

That being said, I must confess that I had not even heard of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra “The World’s First Collaborative Orchestra” before researching this post. And what an interesting concept. First, get a known composer (Tan Dun) to write an original piece of music (‘The Internet Symphony‘). Then have the global web community ‘video audition’ for a chance to play live at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.

This is a highly original idea and I look forward to watching the auditions and seeing the mash up of the best auditions in a promised ‘virtual video orchestra’.  I’m not sure I’ve seen anything as interesting as this on Last FM or Rhapsody recently, and certainly not in the traditional web music store space.

Another example of classical music taking a foothold in social networks can be seen on Second Life. On ‘Music Island’, Linda Rogers co-ordinates a live concert most Saturdays at 3 p.m (EST). There is new music, piano recitals, an orchestra and experiments in the simultaneous creation of music and visual art. Rogers says she welcomes about 2,000 visitors every month to Music Island (from Second Life’s pool of 15m or so).

Indeed, as far back as September 2007 The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic was innovating on Second Life, giving audience members from across the world the opportunity to “sit” in a three-dimensional virtual version of its home venue and listen live as Principal Conductor Vasily Petrenko conducted Ravel’s Sheherazade and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.

Since then, there has been a massive growth in the popularity of social networks and social music, but have other classical institutions and brands picked up where Liverpool (and a handful of others) began?

While the New York Philharmonic now has a MySpace page (with 1,895 Friends as of writing), it seems obvious that the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic, Sydney Opera House, Bolshoi Ballet and Kennedy Centre are all sitting on potentially very large, latent online communities that are just waiting to blossom.

Sean Hickey of Naxos told The Music Void;

“Arts presenters and concert venues must be considered on a case by case basis. The Met’s HD cinema broadcasts are absolutely stunning and count among the great success stories in reaching new audiences in the new millennium. But the same institution’s website looks like a 90’s throwback and they no longer have a store for the many Met and opera-related products they’ve sold at nice margins for years. We find this with many institutions. Most are doing podcasts which is helpful, but not as immediately monetizing as product or service sales, which help perpetuate the culture of the particular institution in other ways.”

What’s Next?

Classical sites such as Passionato and Arkivmusic have begun to inspire others in the digital space, and new social music start-ups with a classical focus are just now beginning to appear.

Dilettante is one such company. It’s a social networking platform dedicated to the classical music enthusiast and serves as an information and music discovery hub, connecting organisations and musicians with audiences; listeners with recorded and live music; and members of the worldwide classical music community with each other. In their words; “Using Web 2.0 principles, Dilettante breaks down existing barriers to the classical genre thereby attracting the widest possible audience.”

Sean Hickey of Naxos America makes perfectly clear the importance of social media to his imprint;

“Social networking is a big part of what we do to market Naxos and our labels. There’s simply no easier and cost-effective way to reach a huge amount of people who’ve expressed interest in classical music. More people are finding us through Facebook every day. Recently, we had an artist post a release party announcement on Facebook on a Friday night for the following Monday. He turned out a great crowd in three days time. All it took was a few minutes to describe the event and plug in the particulars. We encourage all of our artists to be Facebook friends, blog contributors, Naxos podcast guests (in many cases), and to contribute to the Amazon blog.”

While there’s little question that classical music has historically lagged behind the more commercial genres in terms of digital penetration and innovation, many signs now point towards a much brighter future. With so many globally-respected brands to call upon, and a ready-made (offline) audience to draw from, it seems clear that the potential for classical music in this space is huge.

In the end, it will be important for classical music to understand that ‘classical’ doesn’t necessarily need  to equate with ‘conservative business models’, especially when it comes to exploring means by which to popularise, distribute and educate its content to new audiences.

In the third and final installment of this introduction to classical music, TMV’s Chris McLellan will be looking at the issues surrounding live performances. You can read Part 1 in the series here.

Related Posts:

Classial Music Pt.I: Is ‘Star Power’ Essential?

Classical Music Pt.III: Is Live The Future?

Supply And Demand in The Age of Infinite Supply

Classical Musicians and Modern Technology – Part I

When Commerce Eliminated Art… (And then the Music Industry)

Exclusive Interview – Juliana Farha, Managing Director, Dilettante

The School of Rock and Other Musical Contradictions – Juliana Farha

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Jeffery D. Vanderveen, Managing Director – Universal Classical Management & Production


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