I'm doing a handful of interviews relating to different ways of discovering music, and how they fit into the overall new media ecology. I'm not sure yet how, or even if, these will be reflected in the book. But in the meantime, I will make a few notes available on this blog, starting with an interesting case study of an in-development initiative to provide a specialist on-demand classical music TV channel. Here are my notes, with many thanks to Frances Maxwell for the time and input she gave me.
Will interviews with composers and performers, and other DVD-extra-style content, encourage people to find out more about areas of classical music that they don't know? Can on-demand videos of concert performance draw in an audience that might be wary of attending concerts themselves, safe in the knowledge that, with the video, they can always 'leave' if they don't like it? Frances Maxwell, Channel Producer at Classic.tv, which is currently in its development phase, is staking her time and energy on the answer to these questions being Yes.
Classic.tv is one of a stable of broadband TV channels being launched by Opus Media. An online Bollywood film service, Bollywood.tv, and pop video channel, Noise.tv, are already up and running. Technologically its unique selling point is that it can offer uninterrupted video streaming up to 8 Mbit/s (I'm unclear what quality level this corresponds to: Wikipedia says 8 Mbit/s is DVD quality, but Frances points me to a CNET article that says that 5 Mbit/s is all that's needed to stream HD-quality video), though anyone with a PC or a set-top box and a 512 Kbit/s connection can use the service.
Frances explains that although there are a number of classical audio services available, no one else is currently offering an on-demand classical TV service. (Classic FM does have a TV offering, but it's not on-demand.)
Frances believes that on a global scale, the audience for on-demand classical music TV is significant. Classical music and its related forms get very limited airtime on television at present. There is not a large enough audience at any one time in any one geographical area to justify it. Specialist classical music DVDs are often too expensive for anyone but the deeply committed to purchase, especially if there is no opportunity to sample. Opus Media is hoping to address this by providing the first on-demand classical TV channel.
As Frances explains, "The vision is of a service where in the comfort of your own home, you can watch international-calibre artists perform the pieces you know and love from venues all over the world, and go on to try out new material which you may not know (or would not risk buying a concert ticket for) through Amazon-style recommendations."
In addition to a whole range of concert performances, Classic.tv will offer interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, archived material and documentaries, but the intention is for Classic.tv to become more than just a video-on-demand service. Frances hopes that it will grow into a global community of classical music lovers who will share their experiences, encourage one another to further explore the repertoire and act as a catalyst for live concert attendance worldwide. It is also hoped that the nature of an online service will encourage potential new fans of the genre who may have been put off by the perception of formality and elitism associated with classical music, but who can now experiment risk-free in the privacy of their own homes.
The potential for classical music on the internet has been widely reported. The webcast by the Philharmonia Orchestra in April 2005 had 600,000 hits on the day and has since exceeded 1 million hits from over 110 countries. The Beethoven symphonies offered on the Radio 3 website, despite ruffling some feathers in the industry, exceeded 1.3m downloads. Classical downloads on iTunes represent 12% of sales, making its share of the digital market significantly larger than its physical equivalent.
Frances believes that, while services like iTunes can be great for introducing newcomers to classical music, generic music services are not well-suited for serious fans. The quality of meta-data associated with the recordings is variable, to say the least. For example there is often confusion between artist and composer names, a 30-second preview is not long enough to get a feel for a recording, compressed audio formats are of insufficient quality to do justice to the music, and the fixed price model (championed by iTunes) does not make sense when a classical movement can last anything from 1 minute to 45 minutes and beyond.
I ask Frances about how what she's planning for Classic.tv reflects the 'long tail' and the revenue opportunities that it is supposed to offer in the digital age. "There are two perspectives to this," she suggests. "As part of the global market for television, classical music is already niche, and thus Classic.tv is already part of the long tail, but if you are looking internally, of course, there is the core classical repertoire performed by internationally recognised artists, followed by a whole host of lesser known artists and repertoire.
"Whether or not Classic.tv can take advantage of the 'inner' long tail, depends on the size of the catalogue it can acquire. In the long term, Classic.tv hopes to offer many hundreds or even thousands of recordings, but in the meantime, one has to remember that the classical video market is substantially more limited than that of the audio market, simply because not as much has been captured on camera. Furthermore, what is available is not well-known — after all, given the current lack of availability of classical music television, it’s unlikely that anyone will have had a great deal of exposure to it."
So rather than relying on people searching specifically for obscure recordings, the potential here lies in capturing people’s attention with an artist or a piece they recognise, and from there, leading them to discover new things. Classic.tv may focus initially on the major players of the industry, but as the catalogue grows, Frances sees the channel as a huge opportunity for lesser known performers and composers to get their work seen.
As mentioned above, interviews and other collateral material will form an important part of Classic.tv programming. Frances sees the educational aspect of her channel as possibly being a more central element than with other Opus Media offerings, and plans to offer pronunciation guides and perhaps even learning materials for musicians such as introductory instrumental tuition or sheet music downloads.
In the nature of a digital service, Classic.tv also aims to offer biographical profiles of performers and composers, possibly licensed from a third party (though not "boring and scholarly", please). The station will flag 'editor's picks', viewer favourites, introductions for beginners and moderated discussion forums. And, as you'd expect in an age of convergence, the rights deals will also cover distribution to mobile devices and other platforms.
Finally we talk about the visual aspect of classical music. Surely, I ask, the visual element of some kinds of performances, like opera, ballet and contemporary dance, is inherently more central and compelling than in other cases, like orchestral works? Frances acknowledges that some producers have thought in this way, and have prioritised concertos with 'star' soloists over ensemble pieces as a result. But she doesn't want to think that way, and isn't setting any quotas for different forms of performance at this stage. The target audience is not tightly profiled, being anyone in the world with an interest in classical music and a broadband internet connection. The plan is to offer something for everyone. You will not need to be an expert to enjoy Classic.tv’s offerings, but there will be compelling content for the serious enthusiast.
Frances is excited by the possibilities for classical music offered by the internet, and believes audiences will be too — perhaps enlarging the classical music constituency in the process. A target date for the launch of Classic.tv has not been officially set by Opus Media, but you can sign up to be kept in the picture at www.classic.tv.