Art music and digital media: a love-hate relationship

Art music has significantly influenced the formats in which music is recorded. The LP record, for example, was developed in the 1940s largely to accommodate classical works more than a few minutes long. And one version of the story says that the maximum length of a CD, 74 minutes, was fixed according to the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony conducted by Furtwängler in 1951.

At around the time it was launched in 1982, the CD was an ideal format for art music. A couple of symphonies, say, could be released on a single disc, and people could listen to long works without having to turn the record over. The CD also did away with the scratchy sounds and clicks from which analogue recordings had suffered in the quiet passages. It could also record and reproduce the dynamics characteristic of art music better than the old vinyl gramophone record: there was no needle to jump at the cannon shots in the 1812 Overture, and no longer any need to compress the climax of The Great Gate of Kiev in the orchestral version of Pictures at an Exhibition.

In online digital distribution, art music lags behind, however. Art-music lovers still seem to swear by their CDs, for digital distribution still accounts for only 10–12 per cent of art music sales in the Western world. The figure varies from country to country but represents at most barely half the total market.

This time, the reasons have nothing to do with length, because this is in principle no longer of any consequence in downloading and streaming. The determining factors are now quality and listening habits.

People mostly listen to art music on equipment of a high technical quality. The hi-fi buffs at least therefore dislike compression formats the sound quality of which does not, they say, correspond to the ‘full’ files in the way that CDs do. Some online services offer a solution to this problem in the form of lossless-quality products.

Another integral element of the CD is the accompanying booklet or cover giving information about the composers, performers and works, and in the case of vocal music the words. A digital service could in fact supply a more brilliant version of this than its printed counterpart, but the heavy consumers of art music seem to look askance at this option.

In the majority of download services, it is impossible to listen to long samples before purchasing. Whereas in popular music a 30-second sample is sufficient for the consumer to decide whether or not to buy, it is not nearly long enough for art music.

One of the inherent features of downloaded music is mobility. People can listen to it on the way to work, in the office, or out jogging, with a device slipped into a pocket or handbag. Art music is poorly suited to this, because listening demands more sustained concentration, and chamber music, for example, is easily spoilt by the background noise that filters through the headphones.

The slow rise in online sales has not been altogether a bad thing for the producers of art-music CDs, because the turnover in these exceeds that of digital services. The trend is clear, however, and the markets are becoming increasingly competitive.

How, then, will the sound-carrier markets for art music survive in the digital future? There are two obvious answers.

First, art music is a truly global genre with audiences in every corner of the world. The internet is an unparalleled means of targeting, at a single stroke, these small country-specific audiences that may, en masse, prove commercially viable. Identifying, targeting and committing them is, however, not easy.

Second, art music must exploit the potential of audio-visual media more widely and more creatively than it has done so far. The audio-visual concert services specialising in art music have not yet succeeded in reaching listeners to the extent they would wish, though the live cinema screenings of, say, operas have been popular. Admittedly, audio-visual products do increase the producer’s costs and risks.

The content producers and service providers must keep their ears to the ground, be sensitive to listeners’ wishes and accept that their listening habits are, on average, more conservative. For digital media and the internet not only pose threats: they also promise great new global opportunities.

The writer is a consultant for Digital Media Finland, has over 20 years’ experience of the music industry.

Article published at FMQ (2/2014)