It's About Time...
With the launch of their new e-label, The Milwaukee Symphony drags classical music kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
by Drew McManus
October 10, 2005
On September 30th, 2005 the world of classical music received a good, swift kick in the pants. Just a few weeks after the opening of their season, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra became the first major American orchestra to distribute several of their recordings via iTunes with plans to distribute on additional digital music stores in the beginning of 2006. Welcome to the 21st century.
The problem with classical music recordings isn't a lack of interest among younger generations or an oversupply of standard repertoire recordings; instead, the problem is cost. Orchestra recordings are expensive to produce and, therefore, expensive to purchase. As a result, much like the rest of the pop music world, classical music CD's have pushed the $20 marker for decades; that's a steep hurdle for anyone who is simply interested in discovering if they might be interested in classical music.
To help reinforce this point, simply remember back to this summer when the U.K.'s BBC Radio 3 offered free downloads for Beethoven symphonies. Those Beethoven recordings ended up being the most popular downloads in their project (which included mostly popular music). When it was all said and done, the Beethoven recordings were downloaded 1,369,893 times.
Thus the new classical music business equation was born: digital recordings of Beethoven symphonies + free = popular. If some of the most recorded works in classical music repertoire can create such a stir then it seems classical music, new and old, isn't as uninteresting as some people think nor is it being overproduced. As it turns out, it's simply too expensive.
Taking Advantage Of An Opportunity
The Milwaukee Symphony's new "e-label" consists of recordings from their radio broadcast archives. Since they've been broadcasting since 1970 they have over 300 works at their disposal to pick and choose from. They decided to get the ball rolling with 14 selections, all but one are from the ranks of standard repertoire:
The albums range in price from $2.97 up to a maximum of $9.99, plus you can buy most of the individual tracks from each album separately for all of $0.99. You can buy their entire 14 album collection for $76.77, which comes to an average price of $5.19 per album. Now that's affordable.
Although this is a big step forward I do have to point out that inexpensive classical music isn't a new phenomenon. The repertoire-driven NAXOS label has been releasing classical music recordings below the $10.00 threshold for years now and although some of their recordings feature fantastic orchestras such as Seattle and Nashville, the bulk of their recordings are from foreign orchestras.
That recording label has been creative and clever enough to find ways to make recordings affordable but the Milwaukee approach is something a little different. Whereas, Naxos records new performances of selected repertoire, Milwaukee's live broadcast archives can reach back decades giving them an opportunity to provide listeners with an audio timeline of a major orchestra's artistic development.
As such, Milwaukee is killing two birds with one stone: they offer an affordable product for repertoire and genre driven consumers and they also offer something new and unique for those interested in learning about how an orchestra grows and develops as an artistic organism.
The fact that the Milwaukee Symphony owns the rights to its radio broadcasts is another contributing factor making the e-label project possible. Apparently, the musicians of the orchestra felt this project was a worthy vehicle for all of their effort. Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster, Frank Almond, had this to say about their e-label project,
"In a way I'm surprised no other orchestra has done something like this. What's impressive about this project is that it's a really elegant way to utilize this vast archive of broadcasts at a time when most orchestras are facing numerous challenges regarding commercial recording. It's a high-tech and cost-effective approach that will presumably be of interest to people beyond our current audience, but will also be a great resource for current subscribers. I would expect other orchestras to really be watching how this plays out."
It will be interesting to see how other orchestras react. Recently, the Philadelphia Orchestra announced that it will begin to record all of their live performances with the intent of releasing them as commercial recordings. But unlike the Milwaukee Symphony, they're just getting started with creating a live recording archive for the purpose of releasing recordings.
Milwaukee may be the first out of the gate with this new medium, but it will be interesting to see whether or not they move with all deliberate speed when it comes to releasing each installment of their archived recordings. Milwaukee Symphony principal violist, Robert Levine, doesn't think that will be an overly difficult task,
"In some ways, the most interesting aspect of the first wave was the inclusion of the Roberto Sierra piece. A recording of the premiere performance was available for sale internationally less than three weeks after the actual performance [September 17, 2005] - almost certainly some kind of record. Even more remarkable was the fact that we didn't think about getting the Sierra on iTunes until after the performance. The ability to go from performance to release in a few days, with little advance planning, is truly remarkable. And it would be difficult or impossible with other media agreements or even other media than digital downloads.
The other point that's worth making is that this project was possible only because the MSO has 25 years of national radio broadcasts. I think it's fair to say that the MSO has had an unusually broad vision of the role of electronic media in its institutional mission. Without that vision, supported with hard cash over many years, this couldn't have happened. With it, this project is, in a sense, simply an extension of what we've been doing with media for a long time."
What To Expect
I took some time and went through all of the recordings at the Milwaukee Symphony iTunes store. The first thing for classical music audiophiles to remember is that this is iTunes, meaning they haven't smoothed out the user interface to accommodate classical music as well as they could (read: should).
Nevertheless, with the exception of the Sierra album, you will probably know all of the other selections well enough not to have any difficulty figuring your ay around. I did miss the information one can usually find about a recording at an online music store. For instance, with the exception of the Sierra piece, there's no clear indication of when the works were originally performed.
Given the fact that the selections feature current Milwaukee Symphony music director, Andreas Delfs, I have a pretty good time frame for when they were originally broadcast but in the future I hope they make that sort of information available. A recording of Beethoven Symphony No. 5 recorded in 1974 will sound different than a recording from 1994. The difference in recording technology will undoubtedly guide potential buyers to one recording over the other. Knowing that in advance can only be a good thing.
Additionally, there are no liner notes to print out if you decide to burn a copy of the download files onto CD. Hopefully, the Milwaukee symphony will rectify that problem on their own via their website since there are ample templates available they can use to create liner notes free for users to download and print out on their own.
Then there's the whole iTunes thing again. I'm glad to see that the folks at Milwaukee haven't restricted themselves to only using iTunes because quite frankly the service is still a pain in the neck to use. It's restrictive and proprietary to the point of being paranoid (isn't that how Apple lost the personal computer market to IBM and Microsoft to begin with?).
Furthermore, you can't stream any of the music, which means you can't listen to it in real time unless you purchase. Streaming allows users to listen to entire selections of music without actually downloading the files, you simply pay a monthly fee which provides access to the music files. It's like having an older sibling with the world's largest CD collection that you can borrow anytime.
I use the MusicMatch streaming service now and love it, except for the fact that their classical music selection is terrible. But having the ability to listen to millions of selections from other genera in one place is something thoroughly enjoyable. If I had to purchase each one of the tracks I've listened to since subscribing to the service, even for the dirt cheap price of $0.99, I'd be broke. Hopefully, Milwaukee will have plans to include streaming in the near future.
Now, enough complaining about what I didn't like. The best aspects of this program far outshine the (hopefully temporary) shortcomings.
First, these are all live recordings. I am sick to death of over-processed recordings compiled from hundreds of takes. I like hearing string noise. I like hearing page turns. I like hearing a wind player take a breath. I don't like recordings of people coughing but it's a small price to pay.
Second, these are affordable. If you decide to burn them to a disc for use on a standard CD player add $1.00 to the overall price of the recording. Even with that, these are still inexpensive. The downloads are fast and reliable so no more going to the local Best Buy store just to be disappointed at their meager selection of classical music.
Next, you get a 30 second high quality sound clip to help you decide if it's something you really want to purchase or not. In the very first clip I listened to, I actually heard some of that wonderful live ambiance I mentioned above.
Finally, these recordings are of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. I love this group. They're one of the real underdogs in the American orchestra scene. Their musicians play far beyond what they're actually paid and I've been listening to their live broadcasts since I can remember. Toward the end of last season I remember a particular broadcast of a Mahler symphony. I was only running out to pick up some milk but I sat in my driveway listening to the entire live broadcast simply because it was that good, no lifeless studio recording here. I was gone so long my wife actually came out looking for me in fear that I had and accident (personal suggestion: always call home to let your loved ones know you're sitting in the driveway listening to Mahler so they don't worry).
This is a fantastic initiative and I hope it garners the attention and success it deserves. There are some wrinkles to be worked out but in the end, there's ample opportunity for this endeavor to become an integral part of building a new audience for classical music.
This probably won't be any sort of cash cow for the Milwaukee Symphony, but that doesn't really matter. In their case, they've already received financial support to help produce the live broadcasts so this is just icing on the cake.
Nevertheless, it should serve as a good template for other ensembles to use in order to begin securing funding for creating recordings on their own. As a matter of fact, you can find another article at my other online column, Adaptistration; a weblog on orchestra management, tomorrow which will focus on the business end of this deal on how all the parties involved came together to make it work.
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