A year that brought the greatest disruption to business for a generation is behind us. It might be thought that classical music would survive largely untouched in its cloistered world, but that is far from the case.
The outline of how music found itself changed is obvious enough. With live performances closed down in most western countries for lengthy periods, activity moved online and the business model was given a mighty, once-in-a-generation jolt.
A handful of major players have been providing wider access for some years. The Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, inaugurated in 2008, offers 40 live streams per year and an archive of past video recordings. The Metropolitan Opera started streaming opera to cinemas with its Live in HD broadcasts in 2006 and, since the pandemic took hold, has provided free access to a different opera from its archive each night.
It clearly was not going to be long before other orchestras and opera companies entered the field, which they did in short order. Those receiving public subsidy in Europe, such as the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, led the way. Festivals, like Tanglewood in the US and Edinburgh in the UK, took up the baton during the summer.
The big surprise came when other, non-performing groups entered the field. Three organisations exemplify how the ambition to capture the online market is overturning the status quo — the august record company Deutsche Grammophon (DG), the music streaming service Idagio, and longstanding artists’ agency HarrisonParrott.
All three were prompted to move into streaming live performances by the impact of the pandemic. While a desire to make money presumably played a part, each says that the initial spur was to replace the activity missing in live concerts and generate income for artists who had lost their work.
It is not a big jump from producing classical music CDs to streaming live performances, so DG is the most obvious new entrant. With CD sales in long-term decline, the search for a new revenue stream looks an obvious move, though Clemens Trautmann, president of DG, says physical and digital album sales have stabilised in recent years.
“We are proud that DG Stage was set up within two months,” says Trautmann. “The idea came about during the first lockdown. Artists were asking us how they could perform and reinstate their lost fees. We have streamed 50 events in the past six months, including some of our major artists, like Daniel Barenboim and Lang Lang. This is important as promotional activity for our existing back catalogue but it also produces its own revenue stream, which we share fairly with the artists, and helps them stay at the forefront of people’s minds.”
One step further away is Idagio, a German streaming site, similar to Spotify but tailored for the classical music lover. The company’s unique selling point was rooted in the number of recordings it offers and its specialist classical cataloguing, at least until Idagio Global Concert Hall was launched in May 2020.
“We already had over 2 million app users,” says Till Janczukowicz, Idagio’s founder and chief executive. Having started his career at an artists’ agency, he wanted to see how technology could boost classical music.
“Idagio combines the strength of its audio streaming infrastructure, everything that Apple and Spotify have, with our own exclusive deals with certain artists and orchestras. Streaming of live concerts was the next step. We present live concerts in real time, with a virtual green room and interactivity. The artists produce the concerts, own and control the content, and get 80 per cent of the receipts.”
That prompts the question why an artists’ agency should not join the fray itself. HarrisonParrott, an international agency with its head office in London, is doing just that. The company launched its live streaming service Virtual Circle on December 8 — and not with a small-scale solo recital, but an orchestral concert by the Oslo Philharmonic.
“This is a project we have wanted to do for quite a while,” says Jasper Parrott, co-founder and executive chairman. “We have always held the view that it is important to consolidate the digital world as an extension of live concerts, not least because there is too much material circulating out there for free, which undermines the value and standing of the artists. We have good partners in eMusic and 7digital, who handle the technical aspects, and are working hard to create a strong sense of direct communication between the artists and the public. Our ambition is to invest in content and make sure the artists will be remunerated to a higher degree than others are offering at the moment.”
How will they all survive? The classical music business does not have megastars like Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift, whose earnings underpin the sector. The pie is nowhere near as large and the more companies that want a slice, the less there will be to go round.
These latest developments increase the number of organisations in the food chain. With so many orchestras and opera companies getting involved, now joined by record companies and artists’ agencies, there is competition at almost every level.
What if the artists themselves decide to join in? We have already seen pianist Igor Levit delivering online performances from his home during the pandemic and building up an impressive following. Since then he has created an album of the music that proved most popular with his audiences for Sony Classical, his record company, showing how the business interests are intertwined.
It seems inevitable there will have to be compromises as the various players find their niche. This will mean collaborations with other partners, however much that dilutes the income, whenever they can identify shared objectives, such as remunerating the artists.
It looks a safe bet that classical music audiences can look forward to a feast of music online, but what will the industry itself look like in five or 10 years? Trautmann, for one, is cautious. “That is a crystal ball question,” he says.
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