Digital innovation drives classical music

Two classical music experts explain how the genre has come out from behind the ‘glass wall’ to fare well in 2014...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 31 Jan 2014
  • min read
‘When I looked after classical music for iTunes, I did my best to bring it out from behind the “glass wall”’, says Andy Doe (below, right), now a classical music consultant.

‘That allowed people to discover the best records alongside the pop releases on the homepage and it sold a lot of music. But it also said to classical consumers that we cared about them.’

This was some years ago, when iTunes was starting to change from a tiny West Coast experiment into the world’s biggest music retailer.

Back then, high street music retailers positioned classical music in specialised listening rooms behind glass walls, shutting it off from the casual browser.

Andy has always been attracted to the vanguard of classical music and through his career has tracked down new digital opportunities and brought contemporary talent to the fore.

During a spell as chief operating officer at Naxos he oversaw the company's expansion into apps, digital books and ringtones, and as a consultant now works with a diverse client list including artists, internet start-ups and global corporations.

He’s just completed a classical music training session at the BPI - together with NMC Recordings' marketing manager and professional musician Ellie Wilson (pictured above) – so we tracked the pair down to learn about the common misconceptions surrounding the genre and gain a better understanding of how it can work in the digital space.

What are the world’s biggest classical music markets?
Ellie: It depends on the repertoire and the artists but the UK, US and Japan are three of the biggest markets for classical.

What are the biggest misconceptions surrounding the genre here in Britain?
Andy: There’s this crazy idea that classical music is either in terminal decline or under serious threat. In truth, the proportion of the UK population attending classical concerts has been increasing steadily since the mid-nineties. The standards of live performance are as high as they’ve ever been, and there’s an incredibly talented generation of young performers coming out of the music colleges today. We face many of the same challenges as the rest of the record industry, but classical, as a genre, is fighting fit.

There’s also this idea that composers are dead people. Classical music is a living, growing art form, and a diverse group of composers are continuing to develop and build on what has happened before.

E: There is also the misconception that classical music is stuffy, boring and elitist - I’m not going to deny that you can still experience the stereotyped classical concert but there’s so much inventive programming nowadays, where the audience spans all age groups, the ticket price is less than a trip for two to the cinema and the marketing is fresh and inspiring. The Aurora Orchestra is a great example of this.

Also, if you want your classical experience out of the traditional concert hall, where you can chat to your friends and have a beer, then there are great classical club nights such as NONclassical at venues like XOYO and The Macbeth in east London.

Is classical music a hard sell these days?
A: The internet has become an incredible resource to explore classical music. If you’re online, it’s easier to buy a broader range of classical recordings than ever before. With this has come a sudden increase in competition, which can make it tough to sell yet another recording of the same old repertoire, but if your record has a unique proposition and a good reason to exist, and you communicate that message effectively in the right places, lots of people will buy it.

However, mainstream media is increasingly reluctant to give much space to classical music coverage. I think this is often the result of misinterpreting statistics: a relatively small proportion of population likes it, but that proportion likes it a lot. The good news is that thanks to the internet, we have better access to the very best in music criticism form around the world. The Arts Desk, I Care if You Listen and The Guardian blogs are just a few examples of the first class coverage available online.
Ellie: 'In Holland, Steve Reich appeared next to Red Hot Chili Peppers and Philip Glass was rubbing shoulders with Goldfrapp...'

How popular is contemporary classical repertoire compared to catalogue material?
E: The contemporary classical scene is a niche market but a rich, vibrant and rewarding one. There’s an audience out there who are curious and open-minded, and who are always on the lookout for new experiences to inspire, challenge and stimulate. It’s actually a very exciting world to be in and despite the cuts in funding there is a lot going on - if you know where to find it.

Look out for the London Contemporary Music Festival returning this summer to Bold Tendencies, London’s hippest multi-story car park, or get to one of the Late Night contemporary classical Proms. Subscribe to Sound and Music’s e-newsletter The Sampler and explore NMC’s Music Map

There’s always going to be more people buying recordings of Bach than of Birtwistle but it’s important for the industry as a whole to support contemporary classical repertoire.  At one of NMC’s recent album launches Sir Peter Maxwell Davies described the CD as a composer’s calling card. It’s important that a work has life after its live premiere and recordings enable that to happen, with CDs, downloads and streaming making it available to a worldwide audience.

What forms of classical music are most popular - CDs, downloads, streams, sheet music or live performance?
E: CD is still the preferred format for classical music. Twenty-five percent of classical albums sales are downloads, which is behind the market average of 35 percent.

A: CD is still a good format for a lot of classical consumers: they’re building a library, so they’ve got time to wait for mail order. It’s very much a participative art form, so at times we find sales of scores and recordings blossoming together – particularly with new choral works by well known composers.

Concert audiences are booming, and it’s sometimes (though not always) possible to do very well out of CD sales at venues. The download market makes huge catalogues very readily available, which is great news for labels catering to niche markets, where physical distribution costs can be prohibitive. Some labels see streaming as a great means for discovery, while those selling CDs to collectors who rarely listen to them are understandably concerned.
Andy: 'A lot of innovative marketing strategies can get stalled when labels realise they need permission from a publisher...'

How can publishers and retailers better promote classical music?
E: Break out of the tried and tested route and experiment with new marketing ideas. Do in-store gigs and signings with classical artists. Don’t alienate classical music by hiding it away or putting it in an exclusive room. When I was in Holland recently I stumbled upon an independent record store where everything, regardless of genre, was filed A-Z. Steve Reich appeared next to Red Hot Chili Peppers and Philip Glass was rubbing shoulders with Goldfrapp.

A: When I looked after classical music for iTunes, I did my best to bring classical out from behind the ‘glass wall’, allowing people to discover the best records alongside the pop releases on the homepage. It sold a lot of music, but it also said to classical consumers that we cared about them.

A lot of innovative marketing strategies get stalled when labels realise they need permission from a publisher. Publishers can help by being approachable, being willing to try stuff, and by understanding that introducing people to music is sometimes a long game where you have to give a little to get a lot. When the artist, label, composer, publisher and distributor work together, you can do amazing things.

What are the biggest challenges facing classical music in 2014?
A: We face the same challenges as any other genre of music. Classical music has been around a long time though, and has survived the threat of technology-driven change many times before.

So how effectively has the classical music business adapted to advancements in digital technology, streaming and retail?
E: Major labels had a head start because they had already adapted their business for the pop industry but there was caution from some classical labels to start with, especially with downloads and streaming.

A: In the early days of iTunes, I spent a lot of time trying to convince labels that participating in downloads was a good idea. Today, classical labels lead the field in a lot of areas. They’ve become adept at marketing directly to very targeted audiences and embrace the use of technology to deliver higher-quality audio than can any mainstream physical format can deliver.

On the physical side, classical labels are innovating with manufacture-on-demand technology to ease the transition away from CD in a way that will eventually become a model for the rest of the music industry.

What more can be done?
A: I’d like to see the labels work together to demand more consistent labelling of classical recordings at digital retail. Classical metadata is always untidy when a new online store launches, and that needn’t be the case. I see a lot of elaborate and expensive ‘solutions’ to this problem, but if we just all agreed that we need space for long track titles and somewhere to list the composers, we’d be streets ahead of where we are now.

Where are the main business opportunities and how should the industry tap into them?
E: I think licensing is a big business opportunity for labels. Classical music is timeless and lends itself well to be synced in films and ads. Set up an area on your website to display audio extracts of music in your catalogue. Approach production companies, brands etc who you think would be interested in your music. Get your music on YouTube tagged with suitable words that might interest an ad agency browsing for their next project. Attend one of the AIM or BPI Sync workshops – it’s a great way to make contacts and get your music to the right ears.

How can the classical music community better connect with audiences?
A: We could do a better job of turning lists of facts into stories about music. We’d do well to give people’s emotional response to music at least as much weight as we give to its historical context.

Do you have any advice for upcoming classical composers?
E: Don’t shy away from self-promotion. Social networking, fan-funded projects, blogs, your own online radio show etc. are all great ways to get you and your music heard. Build a website, get your music on Soundcloud, go to lots of concerts and network, collaborate with other musicians or artists, dancers, writers – you never know what doors it might open. Start your own ensemble and be creative with programming and venues. Get involved with the projects Sound and Music are running for composers, or the LSO Soundhub – there are opportunities out there.

Do you have any advice for classical publishers?
A: A lot of label marketing folk are intimidated by publishers – they tend not to have a lot of contact with them. Many don’t understand the extent to which you both want the same things, the ways you can help each other, or the huge overlap between your audiences.

Labels are good at producing the sort of audiovisual materials that help spread the word about music, but they don’t have the same long term relationship with the individual composers’ audiences. If you reach out to a label’s marketing folk at the start of a project, there’s no telling what you might come up with by the time it’s all over.

Read Andy's Proper Discord blog

Learn more about NMC Recordings and check out Eleanor’s band Revere. They’re gearing up to release their second album on 7 April.