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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Counting the Freeloaders

By Norman Lebrecht / October 19, 2005

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It was Clausewitz who said that fighting a war on two fronts is not a good idea, but facing both ways on the same front is surely indefensible. Last week the BBC announced the end of music on the World Service while, in practically the same breath, assuring Parliament that it has an absolute right to deliver music to all corners of the earth. Bewildered? So are the troops.

The BBC World Service is dropping music, classical and pop alike, in order to fund an Arabic TV station to counter Al-Jazeera, Osama Bin Ladenâs channel of choice. The cuts have provoked the usual outcry - ÎNeedless destruction of a cultural treasureâ wailed one headline - led, as ususal, by the music industry which relies on the Beeb for free promo.

There will probably be a lobbied compromise before the last beans are counted. But while the heart aches, it truly does, to see Britainâs historic window to the world shutting out music like a cloud of mosquitoes, the mind recognises a different reality. Much of the world is now on-line. The rest will follow as $100 laptops hit Asia, where the aim of several big charities is to put every child within reach of the internet.

A world that receives BBC Radios 1, 2 and 3 on the web no longer needs music from the World Service. What it requires ö by the end of next week, if possible - is a language conversion button on all BBC websites to allow kids in Togo and Tahiti, mums in Mumbai and Mexico City, to log onto the best of British culture in the comfort of their own vernacular.

The World Service has no further role as a cultural ambassador. This may not have been what head mandarin Nigel Chapman wanted to convey, but by calling time on music, he has brought into focus the sole purpose of his Service, which is to provide news and commentary in as many languages as the Foreign Office will pay for at an impeccable standard of clarity and accuracy, unmatched elsewhere in the BBC. All else is inessential.

For the BBC has outgrown its World Service and become a global brand, dominant in the medium that delivers the bulk of the worldâs information and entertainment. On-line, the BBC News website is required reading for world leaders. BBC America has more hits than most US cable channels have subscribers. And Radio 3 (where I am a presenter) is a web hub of classical music and cultural discussion, an evolution that has ruffled some political feathers.

Last week, Radio 3âs inspired summer offering of live Beethoven symphonies for free download was attacked by John Whittingdale, Tory chairman of the Commons select committee on media and culture, for damaging 'small and fledgling' offshoots of a struggling music industry. The BBC replied that it had consulted the industry in advance and was sharing its data with all interested organisations. The matter grumbles on and Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, has promised the committee a fuller explanation.

I am in a position to shed more light on the results. An internal breakdown of the Beethoven downloads reveals that the biggest proportion, 295,000 or 21 percent, were taken in the US, closely followed by Britain (240,000 or 17 percent), Holland (80,000), Germany (58,000), Belgium (57,000), Canada (55,000) and Russia (55,000). Nation was speaking peace unto nation, in the spirit of the BBC's mission, and if the bulk of the chat was to members of the same civilisation that, surely, was only to be expected when the topic was the supreme composer in the western symphonic tradition.

What is remarkable, even astonishing, is the extent of interest outside the old league of nations. Music seekers in Vietnam, for instance, took 17,000 Beethoven downloads, there were 15,000 in Thailand and Mexico 13,000, in Taiwan. People in 26 different countries joined the Beethoven wave, giving the BBC one of its biggest web footprints and Britain immeasurable credit as a cultural provider.

And the wave will continue to roll. Regardless of political objections, Radio 3 plans to offer some free downloads from its Bach bonanza in the ten days up to Christmas - a 214-hour relay of 500 organ works, 371 chorales, 215 cantatas, 200 keyboard scores, 40 chamber works, 14 passions and much else - though it has not yet been decided how much Bach will go for free.

The case for giving it away runs something like this. The BBC employs three orchestras in London and Manchester and wants the public to have ready access to their work in all media. Beyond raising awareness in classical music and the vitality of British cultural life, the initiative is also educating consumers the world over in how to make a legal download of a large symphony, something the mega-labels have conspicuously failed to achieve. The music industry has nothing to fear from the freebies, when the BBC is freely sharing its database of world users. There is full support from chairman Michael Grade and from DG Mark Thompson, who has pledged that culture will be Îright up thereâ with news and sport at the centre of the BBCâs output.

However - and here the BBC loses the plot - television has resisted the call to cultural renewal and is stuck in a primordial rut. A Sunday dauber continues to teach art, a toothy gardener to present the Proms. In its commissioning process, the artistically tame prevails over the potentially daring. Cultural documentary is all too often indistinguishable from promotional puff. Alan Yentobâs Imagine series is a tour of narrow horizons.BBC2âs Culture Show mistakes events for ideas. The disengagement from creative momentum is almost total.

The most contentious opera of the new century, Doctor Atomic by John Adams, opened a fortnight ago in San Francisco amid furious debate over the motives of the men who made the first atom bomb. The opera has not been shown on the BBC. Next week, China will see its first Wagner Ring, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Millions in Britain and around the world will want to know how he got on. They need not turn to the BBC for enlightenment. So ambivalent is the BBC's outlook that there is no certainty that Harold Pinter's speech, when he receives the Nobel on December 10, will considered for a live relay on News 24.

Content is the key to winning on the web and the BBC is missing out on far too much. Culturally, it is facing both ways, claiming educational kudos while actually dumbing down. The time for an upgrade is now, or never.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001