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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Culture slips through the net

By Norman Lebrecht / January 31, 2002

WHEN the new musical environment finally takes shape, events of the past fortnight will mark a turning point on the long, frustrating trail from virtual to reality.

There has been a sudden burst of two-way traffic on the information highway. The first classical e-player has ground to a halt, while the oldest steam broadcaster roared back into the fast lane.

Global Music Network, which pioneered live concerts and opera on the internet in 1998, ran out of money last week. It shut its London headquarters, sacked staff and retreated to California for "regrouping" and sale. With the Nasdaq down and dotcom a dirty word, any prospects of rescue appear remote. GMN was to have been bailed out last year by Alberto Vilar, the Cuban-American investment manager who has sunk a quarter of a billion of his own dollars into half a dozen opera companies. But Vilar demanded sweeping changes, including the removal of GMN's founder bosses, Mike Lubin and conductor David Atherton.

He also wanted to rationalise the company's artist roster, topped by his personal favourites Valery Gergiev and Placido Domingo, but listing many other, more parochial names. As contacts froze, Vilar had to undergo surgery in Vienna, and opera chiefs began fretting over cheque delays. GMN, having run through $18 million of seed funding, could wait no longer. "We have been ahead of our time," said vice-president Paul Findlay. "Broadband did not come through as quickly as expected and business got tough. The site will keep going while we seek a buyer."

GMN's struggle was complicated by a rush of me-toos, eager to grab the classical ear as soon as the spread of broadband made receiving music on computer as simple as watching TV. London-based Digital Classics streamed video operas. From New York, promised live concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and LSO. Andante is about to start a premium concerts service for $9.99 a month, but survival will require deep pockets and the resilience to outpace a refuelled juggernaut.

For, just as the e-broadcasters began to fade, the BBC has come charging back into a lane it has vacated for a decade. First, director general Greg Dyke admitted past shortcomings in evidence to the House of Commons culture committee. He promised to atone with 230 hours of arts programming a year on mainstream BBC1 and BBC2. This is, by my reckoning, more than we will have seen since 1985.

Then BBC4, the impending digital channel, announced that it will relay one live orchestral concert a week, plus lashings of opera, ballet, theatre and arts docs. Just how this can be done in high quality on £35 million a year is unexplained, but one new box of tricks will cut costs considerably. At the Barbican, an enlightened administration has installed digital cameras to relay live concerts without the usual trundling of hardware and union premiums. Drab grey Barbie is, so far as I am aware, the first arts centre in the world to be up and ready for broadband and beyond. It gives artists the option to reach a global audience, whether through the BBC or on their own website.

The BBC's reawakening to culture arises from a shrewd assessment of these realities. Tactically, the BBC needs to mend cultural fences at home before the next charter renewal round. Strategically, however, it has begun to revalue culture as a useful global weapon.

What GMN did, in its short life, was to warn big broadcasters that they cannot afford to neglect any human activity without losing out to e-play. By reclaiming the lively arts, the BBC has a unique chance to plant its footprint in cultural cyberspace, primarily in the US where seriousness has been cleansed from terrestrial media. has made huge strides in offering the US an alternative menu - albeit mostly in cooking, gardening and home decor. Once it can deliver live concerts and theatre, it will have a field to itself. Culture, in the new economy, is no longer a cringeing embarrassment but an e-tailer's dream, an AB1 niche. Will the BBC seize the opportunity? That remains to be seen, but the signs are that art is helping to formulate the future of the BBC - not just here, but out there.

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(c) La Scena Musicale 2001