One Million Beethoven Fans Can’t Be Wrong

The BBC offered it—a free download of all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies—and the people came. When the stats came back that more than a million electronic copies had been snagged during the month, Roger Wright, controller of Radio 3, declared in a rhapsodic PR statement, “The response has been incredible and much bigger that we expected…we hope this will encourage new audiences to explore online classical music.”

Bloggers picked up the news of the free downloads and spread the word throughout Internetland. On message boards, people discussed the impact the project was having and, in at least one case I found, how the BBC Beethoven season in general had inspired a listener to pull an old copy of the “Emperor” Concerto out of the piano bench and start practicing again.

Just when I though the classical industry was about to call for a tickertape parade and burn copies of Lebrecht’s Who Killed Classical Music? in the streets, word came over the transom that the classical record companies were pissed off. They countered that by offering free downloads of Beethoven (quite legally, just to be clear), the BBC was effectively “devaluing the perceived value of music” and “that any further offers would be unfair competition” (as reported by the Independent, July 10, 2005).

There’s a lot of talk (and I mean a lot) at industry conferences about the imperative need to “broaden the audience” if we hope to have a healthy, economically solvent future. I’m a big believer in the “it’s not the music, it’s the packaging” theory of classical decline, and think a major problem is our insistence on clinging to models and expectations from the culture boom days that are gone. With the Beethoven Experience project, the BBC took a big step forward towards delivering the music to the audience on their terms rather than waiting for them to hurdle our velvet rope. The importance of this can’t be underestimated in an area where the discussion historically turns rather quickly to how to “fix” the audience so that they will wake up and understand how important our orchestras and new concert halls are to a community. Plus, if time is money, one million downloads, free of charge or not, still count for something. If it was offered for free and no one downloaded it, that would prove a serious societal devaluation.

I grasp the labels’ fear that sales of Beethoven symphony discs will be hit by the glut of free product available (though I leave the door open to the thought that the stats on this may prove quite the opposite). Maybe they also want to head off what could become a public radio trend. But with dozens of versions of the standard rep to choose from in the record bins, I wonder how this is at all that different from the business model they operate under already. Maybe this will inadvertently force the record industry to save itself by diverting their focus to new work no one has recorded so as to be the only kid on the block with such a product on offer. (Hey, a new music gal can dream, can’t she?) Such recordings will be out of the financial reach of the BBC.

But back to Beethoven. In an industry with just a 3 percent share in the music sales market (according to a 2003 RIAA profile), a million downloads in a month represents a dramatic increase in public interest in your product. It’s an oddly schizophrenic message to be upset by a whole new group of music fans with a newly whetted appetite for orchestra music. Rather than chastise them (via publicly wrist-slapping the BBC), sell them more! Did you like Beethoven? Then how about Joan Tower? (When you think about it, it might not be so far fetched a marketing strategy.)

Ever get handed a free sample on the street, and then find yourself reaching for the product at the supermarket? Even though CDs are not 100 percent consumable, might we not evaluate this experiment in terms of a wine tasting? Not everyone will keep buying more bottles of their new discoveries, but a percentage will. And a group of those will likely start frequenting your store and trying other bottles on the shelves, even some who before were maybe strictly PBR guys.

Every week, the iTunes store offers a free “Single of the Week.” I’m in the habit of downloading the track, which has never been by an artist I’ve ever heard of, just to see if I like it. That’s all that it’s there for—a friendly invite to music fans to drop on by and see what a particular band is all about. If it nets the artist new fans (a.k.a. potential paying downloaders), it’s done its job. I don’t think anyone argues with the fact that classical music, new and old, has some PR to do with modern society. The BBC model seems like a campaign with real potential.

Let’s put it in real terms, though. If the BBC or iTunes was willing to feature a piece of yours next week as a free download, can I see a show of hands from the composers who would say “No, thanks!”?

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