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The Lebrecht Weekly


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


By Norman Lebrecht / April 5, 2006

When BBC Radio 3 runs the whole of Wagnerâs Ring on Easter Monday, Rhine Maidens to immolation, there will be free downloads once again ö only this time with a difference. Unlike last summerâs Beethoven splashout, when all nine symphonies were reeled out over a fortnight and 1.4 million downloads were taken worldwide, the Wagner goodies are being strictly limited.

What is being aired is the 1993 Bayreuth cycle conducted by Daniel Barenboim, this yearâs Reith lecturer, and the BBC owns no further rights in the production. However, a freebie finger on will point listeners to where they can help themselves to one track from each of the four operas, amounting in total to a Wagner happy half-hour.

Warner are using the gift as a gateway to what it hopes will be a rush of web sales while the BBC is mending fences with the music industry which howled blue murder over Beethoven and acted as if Radio 3 was destroying its business when, in fact, no label had issued a symphonic cycle in three years, and none was likely to do so again.

Glossing over these diplomatic niceties, the link-up is another stride in the quick march towards putting music on-line. The antedeluvian record industry, which never used to give away something for nothing, is having to play Father Christmas in an attempt to stop the future being taken over by free relays.

Radio 3 this week, completely without fanfare, is launching podcasts of Discovering Music, a series linked to the A-level examination syllabus and containing copious passages of music, most of them played by BBC orchestras and studded with helpful commentary. The music has been cleared for free download. A classical beginner can use it to form, at the very least, a basic repertoire guide.

Fearful of making free-market enemies while awaiting the Governmentâs decision on the next level of licence-fee, the BBC is limiting its podcasts to an initial three-month trial and making no promises about further giveaways. But in an ever-changing cyberspace where national broadsheets feed your I-pod with daily columns and television is coming down the phone, this is not so much a toe dipped in hot waters as the beginning of an undeclared world war over who controls classical music.

At least one British newspaper has asked to share the BBC's Wagner downloads on its own website. No-one a year ago would have expected a print dinosaur to deliver music but in the new reality anyone with a URL is a potential podcaster. It will not be long before hundreds of sources are invading your breast-pocket with classical music, broadcast or podcast, audio or visual, at a modest price, or no price at all.

Only last week the Royal Opera House unveiled a high-definition camera system that is supposed to feed BBC screenings and DVD releases. But the ROH is also geared, says chief executive Tony Hall, Îto experiment with the world of broadband (and) · transform our relationship with our audiences.â That means Sylvie Guillem and Placido Domingo live in your living room before the decade is out.

Londonâs Philharmonia Orchestra is on the verge of a more daring initiative. This time last year, the band put one of its concerts gingerly online and was stunned to find 600,000 people ö more than it gets at the Royal Festival Hall all year ö rushing to its website to download the event. Since then, has taken registrations from 101 different countries in expectation of further events, which will surely follow. ÎThe BBC blazed a trail with Beethoven and showed what could be done,â says Philharmonia managing director David Whelton. ÎThe future of music is now in our hands.â Our hands means musicians, not middlemen.

The orchestra plans to put ten to fifteen concerts a year online. It has yet to finalise agreements with all conductors and soloists but the players are wholeheartedly in favour and, while a price structure is still being out in place, some concerts will certainly be free to download. ÎWe are a publicly funded organisation,â says Whelton. ÎWe have a public duty to reach as many people as possible with the work we do.â

That is seriously bad news for the olde-worlde record industry which is trying to corral orchestras onto corporate websites. Universal, the group that owns Decca and Deutsche Grammophon, recently signed a deal with the New York and Los Angeles philharmonic orchestras to carry four concerts a season on-site at ten dollars a download. The groupâs new media vice-president, Jonathan Gruber, is setting up me-too deals with the London Symphony Orchestra and several yet-unnamed European outfits. EMI, with an eye on Simon Rattle exclusivity, is negotiating urgently with the Berlin Philharmonic to take its concerts on-line.

The question orchestras should be asking in these discussions is: whatâs in it for us? Why split a ten-buck fee when you can carry concerts on your own website? who needs label hype when the Philharmonia, without a whisper of publicity, drew more than half a million music seekers on site on the offchance of a download?

The labels, for their part, have become heavily reliant on backlist e-sales through I-tunes where, as in the early days of compact disc, classical has obtained a distortively high market share of 12 percent ö six times its global rating ö through an inrush of middle-income types who need to stock up their new toy. I-tunes, though, is not a classical solution. The site is poorly stocked and haphazardly catalogued. Symphonies are sold irritatingly by the movement, not the complete work. Pop songs are thrust at you in directive Îshufflesâ that are designed to suggest your next purchase.

Most frustrating of all to finely tuned classical ears, the sound quality on I-tunes is compressed, some way below CD clarity. People who buy classics on I-tunes and similar outlets tend to be neophytes. The hard core will always look for the highest definition, sensitive as they are to distinctions between oboe and cor anglais. There is not much point in listening to a symphony orchestra if its distinctive properties are not much clearer than a synthesiser.

The sound on the BBC and Philharmonia sites is as vivid as it gets. In the war for control of classical music, the winners will the ones who deliver the best music at the best price, with plenty of free offers to attract a universal audience.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

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



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