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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   September 28, 2006   next

Have you been watching the shift online by major orchestras? It started with the BBC last summer, when they dropped a complete set of Beethoven symphonies on their website for unrestricted download. In one month more than a million copies were downloaded. The orchestral world watched with great interest, a little criticism, then some envy, and at last imitation.

The music industry was slow to react, and the traditional orchestras were last to catch the nonpop train out of the station. Destination: The Great Classical Diaspora.

The orchestras hope, of course, to bring more listeners into the concert halls. Here's what I think -- and maybe you'll come back next year and laugh at me. It's not happening. Those Beethoven symphonies and everything that the BBC and the other suddenly-hip orchestras are dumping on servers will never compete with other genres for iPod space, and on the other side the audio-freakly classical listeners won't touch a compressed mp3 with a ten-foot monster cable. There are the curious, the collectors, and the casual. But with broadcasters shoveling all their content online, nonpop programming is once again dropping into a minority.

Online sales are telling a slightly different story, if the news releases out of the U.K. are to be believed, where the classical genre accounts for twelve percent of sales (vs. four percent of CDs). Latecomer critics like Alan Kozinn have looked up to discover that the internet has become "a primary resource for classical music." Look out! Insight! Hey, the real metagenre of nonpop was there from the beginning. But I digress.(For now.)

The downloads aren't going to bring listeners to the concert hall. The iPod experience -- and my years spent co-hosting Kalvos & Damian were similar -- encourages short pieces and sampling, remixing, shuffling, and trying out music for its interest. As one blogger put it, "Why download all of Turandot when you can get 5 Nessun Dormas or In Questa Reggias for a fraction the cost?" Indeed. Even as a not-yet composer growing up in the vinyl LP days, I found little to recommend many symphonies and most operas in their entirety. Heresy that may be, but a composer has my attention only long enough to complete the thought. Perhaps that thought will be complex and compelling -- the first movement of Mahler's Tenth Symphony, say. Or perhaps it will be a confused and inconsequential thrashing, as is the last movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. In either case, the other movements have to make cases for themselves, starting over. (And only opera lovers know there's actually something more than Nessun Dorma anyway. Deal done.)

The current model for online music sales is by-the-tune. The album is gone, dead. That takes the symphony with it ... and the pricing guarantees the psychological shift. A big chunk of nonpop comes down the pipes for free, offered by composers and ensembles. Ninety-nine cents gets a tune. So the Philadelphia Orchestra stumbles onto the digital superhighway with -- yes, you guessed it -- a free download of Beethoven's Fifth. Sure, you can have that one for free, but want the Ninth? Twelve bucks for high-quality FLAC files. Shostakovich? Six bucks. And what? The Penderecki Threnody? Bargain basement two bucks ... and just 99 cents for an mp3 version!

So let me get this right. I pay CD prices for full symphonies and don't even get a nice booklet to read. Okay, CDs are on their way out (but what's this? vinyl is making a comeback? scratch that) and downloads are the future, but what is compelling about a full symphony when shuffle & remix are the way non-nonpoppers listen to music? This is selling the very same thing to the very same audience they already have. Is there another model? (Just as an aside, the Philadelphia Orchestra online shop is actually very good, offering unencrypted and untethered downloads on a website that actually functions smoothly.)

The classical music purist believes in the integrity of a composer's work; I count myself among them. But excerpting, shuffling and remixing have been part of nonpop for centuries. We just happen to use different names -- arias, variations, orchestrations, toccatas, fantasies, cantatas. The symphonic movement is little more than a self-standing remix. The symphony or the cantata is an album, with some of the songs occasionally related and sometimes a big ol' reprieve, um, reprise at the end. The remix is purism, though some composers have yet to come to terms with that.

You think I've lost my thread. I haven't. To increase audiences, there needs to be a compelling reason for some music listener to move from 99 cents in a shuffle up to 50 dollars just to bob for acoustic apples, and the slow movement of the Eroica ain't it, my sibling donkeys. It's people who draw crowds. Personalities, style, excitement -- a show. A show isn't all flashing strobe lights and flailing drummers and pumping guitarists. It's sweat and passion, to be sure, and surprise and sex. The eroticism and the drama and the fearlessness and the unexpected and the very showiness of nonpop have evaporated. They are not viral. There is no meme. And worst of all, nonpop concerts have no story to tell.

Well sure they do, you're thinking. Yes, yes, we are passionate as composers. We create music at least full of commitment, even where passion is slight and sex is absent. But the concerts, outside a small number of chamber bands giving it some heat and hormones, are shriveled and barren affairs. Their numbers cannot increase. Indeed, the 99-cent tune has set not only the price but also the mood (and one of us really gets it in serious, uncompromising nonpopdom: Dial-a-Mood), and the mood is intensely personal. It flows outward into a diverse gene pool.

The Great Classical Diaspora is spreading DNA fragments of nonpop across the cultural globe, resowing itself in new and unpredictable fields. Every concert and every mp3 has the potential to be larger than it appears to be in the rear-view mirror of the classical past.

Elizabeth Panzer on the harp
No, it's not all strobe lights and flailing drummers -- a passionate show can be as personal as Elizabeth Panzer's performance, here on Kalvos & Damian in April 2004.

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