Classical Music Downloads

Let’s revisit an issue from a few years ago.
In 2005, BBC Radio 3 presented the first in their now regular “Experiences” when they broadcast the Beethoven Experience. They broadcast, non-stop Beethoven for six days including pretty much everything he composed.
As part of the Experience, they made available as downloads, a new recording from the BBC Symphony Orchestra of the Beethoven Symphony cycle. This was an incredibly successful venture with 1.4m downloads. And remember that this was five years ago, when fewer people had broadband, and podcasting was in its relative infancy.
The record companies were not happy. Rather than perhaps considering that the BBC was using its own orchestra, playing out of copyright music (Beethoven died in 1827), might actually encourage more people to discover the works of one of history’s greatest composers, they were incensed that the BBC was killing the classical music recording industry.
Why would anyone buy classical music if the BBC was giving it away free?
Of course, nobody asked why someone would buy the premium price Berlin Philharmonic recording of piece conducted by Sir Simon Rattle rather than, say, the £4.99 Naxos recording of the same piece.
Anyway, the classical music industry got its way, and the BBC didn’t give away any more recordings (at least if you discount the “free” cover-mounted CDs each month on BBC Music magazine). And when the BBC Trust allowed the BBC to do podcasting, there was a specific clause inserted into the rules to which the BBC must adhere.
From the BBC Trust On Demand conclusions published in April 2007:
Classical music was a potential exception because it is largely out of copyright and classical broadcasts on BBC radio are often performed by BBC ensembles. This means the BBC faces fewer restrictions in offering classical music for download. The Trust proposed to exclude it after considering concerns raised by Ofcom’s Market Impact Assessment that offering downloads of classical music could harm CD sales. For the avoidance of doubt, it was not the Trust’s intention to exclude short excerpts of classical music when used as incidental music to programmes or as signature tunes in the context of a broader radio programme.
At the time of the BBC’s release of the Beethoven cycle, there were complaints from the record industry that Beethoven symphonies would be off the radar for the time being – there’d be no demand for them.
Interestingly, Amazon lists upwards of 400 releases of CDs including Beethoven symphonies in the last five years, including many packages of all nine symphonies. I bought the Dudamel recording of symphonies 5 and 7 myself.
But things have moved on, and I wouldn’t doubt that like much of the music industry, classical recordings have had a tough time.
Which is why two recent things have happened that I find really interesting and make this an issue to look at again. MusOpen, a site that gathers together free open source music, has raised $40,000. Aaron Dunn of MusOpen raised the cash so that he could pay to have a orchestra record some classical repertoire that could be given away free.
Exactly what music gets recorded and by who, has yet to be decided (they could go for a world-class orchestra and record a few pieces, or go for a less-well known collective and record more). Why would an orchestra do this? Well they already do. Orchestras are musicians for hire, and can do deals without “backend” remuneration beyond the original recording fees.
What will MusOpen choose? And will it take that piece out of the classical repetoire for the next few years? Or will it simply be judged on its own qualities, with people making their choices accordingly?
The other thing that’s happened is that Radio 3 is now trialling a new podast that includes full pieces of music. Since, for the most part, classical compositions are longer rather than shorter – the “full pieces” (up to 9 minutes) – will be movements rather than entire compositions. Yet this is clearly only happening because the classical recording industry has agreed to it.
From the Media Guardian piece:
Ginny Cooper, vice chair of the BPI classical committee, said it would “further enhance listeners’ ability to access the plethora of fantastic and innovative new recordings released every week”.
Now what, if anything, the BBC is paying for this privilige, we don’t know. But I think it’s interesting in light of earlier attitudes towards allowing music to be downloaded. It couldn’t be that giving away music might actually encourage and stimulate overall sales could it?