Rhinegold Photo credit: Eric van Nieuwland

Phillip Sommerich

Classical:NEXT 2017 – day one

9:15, 19th May 2017

In line with the theme of Classical:NEXT 2017, the British Association of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) on day one of conferences threw out the challenge at its session: What are you doing to promote equality and diversity?

Natalie Bleicher, whose study for BASCA of 400 applications for British Composer Awards in 2015 showed the barriers female applicants faced, said last year’s figures showed the effect of one initiative. After composers were allowed to submit their own works, the proportion from females rose from 21% in 2015 to 29% last year.

She also cited the PRS Women Make Music project, which boosted commissions and income for female composers, while Radio Three’s decision to devote its entire schedule on International Women’s Day to female composers had highlighted neglected works which are now appearing regularly in broadcast and concert programmes.

Pioneering black composer Shirley Thompson told the session that history books overlooked the fact that black and ethnic minority composers had been involved in Western classical music for centuries. Paintings from the time of Henry VII showed such musicians as an integral part of arts activity of the time. More study would reveal how these artists had contributed to music that was generally assumed to be the work of white European composers, she argued.

Challenged to come up with suggestions for tackling these issues, audience discussion groups suggested commissioning works from ethnic minority composers, as Miami’s New World Symphony does, groups that encourage diversity linking to organise co-commissions, create new ‘listening spaces’ where ethnic minority audiences felt comfortable and abandoning programming practices which, while familiar to artists and regular concert-goers, were offputting to new audiences.

The classical music industry ignores neo-classical artists – the likes of Olafur Arnalds, Max Richter, Einaudi and Tan Dun who can fill stadium and appear on pop festival bills – at their peril.

That was the view from a panel addressing the title Neo Classical – Bright New Hope or Kitschy Crap, although all the speakers expressed distaste about the genre’s title.

Concert promoter Justus Wille said such artists often provided an alternative to what put many people off classical music – it had a simplicity that encouraged people to listen to it over a long duration, in contrast to the complexity of traditional works. But one had to differentiate between ‘those who are doing something of substance and those who are just about creating an atmosphere’.

Ralf Diemert of Selective Artists management, said such artists had a warning for the ‘elite’ venues that focused on traditional core repertoire: we don’t need you, we can make it work without you.

Recording industry veteran Christian Kellersmann said if one asked the public to name three contemporary composers there would only be silence. Classical music needed composers who had popular recognition.  If it was to draw in today’s audience it also needed to use the instruments they were familiar with, such as electronics, rather than those of 100 years ago.

That was thinking behind the new label Neue Meister that he has launched with Edel to showcase contemporary music – a venture he said could not have happened while he was at a major such as Deutsche Grammophon.

Music journalism is dead, but that may not draw many mourners, judging by a session conducted by South Africa-born, Berlin-based freelance writer Shirley Apthorp.

Every month arts journalists are being shed from publications, she said, and freelances were paid at best €75 for a review, with no payment of expenses or travel costs. Going from Berlin to Salzburg for an assignment would yield her net revenue of €10.

On top of that, online news platforms were increasingly demanding content that attracted the maximum audience and thus advertising revenue. Classical music was unlikely to survive this ‘click bait’ trend.

‘There is no classical music website in the world that gets enough traffic to employ people. Most people work there for free.’

By contrast, ‘fake news’ sites were attracting advert revenue of up to $100,000 a month

She predicted that classical music would follow the example of sport, where football clubs set up their own news sites. ‘Everything is wonderful, is what you are going to end up with.’

Paul Keene from the Barbican Centre said professional journalism bolstered venues’ public profile: ‘We are only as good as last month’s review.’  But he admitted that when the film Obsession was trashed by critics recently, it did not affect the box office because the film had a celebrity star.

And he said: ‘I do often wonder who the public is for reviewers, it often seems to peer to peer [reviewers talking to each other].’

One festival organiser was more trenchant: ‘Music journalists don’t know who they are writing for, they just go not a concert and describe what happened. They don’t have any idea what it means or for whom they are writing.’ If music journalism died, it would ‘suicide’, he said.

After splitting into discussion groups, the audience came up with predictable suggestions: grants and more education for music journalists.

Making streaming work for classical music was an issue on show in the exhibition halls as well as under discussion in the conference rooms.

Primephonic and Idagio are two-start-ups exhibiting with an answer to classical record labels’ complaint that streaming does not pay for music that often comes in 30 minutes per track rather than three minutes: both offer per-second payment.

Primephonic launches in the summer in the US and UK with repertoire from 600 labels including Sony and Warner Classical and offering lossless Flac or mp3 streams at£14.99 a month.

Simon Eder, one of the Netherlands-based team who took over audiophile label PentaTone five years ago and now want to bring its ethos to streaming, said that because the focus was on audio quality its had initially linked with labels which shared that aim.

He pointed out that revenue from recorded sales had been steadily declining from the 55 cents a minute average from vinyl LPs to 0.15 cents paid by Spotify. To maximise revenue,  Primephonic offers a free 30-day trial but no permanent free streaming option.

Many people use streaming to explore what music they like, Mr Eder said, so Primephonic also offers downloads to buy at various audio qualities including the top DSD level.

Idagio, launched by artist manager Till Janczuhowicz and digital guru Christoph Langer in 2015 to praise from Sony Classical and the Vienna Philharmonic, has 30 staff based in Berlin and is available in 70 countries, with North America due to come on board in 2018.

It also has 600 labels on board and its $7.99 a month offer includes the ability to save and listen offline.

Chiara Marsoner, Idagio’s business development manager, said baritone Thomas Hampson and pianist Ivo Pogorelich were among artists so impressed with the venture that they were releasing recordings exclusively through it.

Both sites offer ‘sticky’ features such as composer and artist biographies, reviews and live relays. Primephonic has a ‘time clock’ that displays events in classical music history for any given date, even down to when composers completed certain works.

Qobuz, the pioneering streamer marking its 10th anniversary, launched at Classical:NEXT its latest premium package, Sublime+, claiming to be the only offer in the world of Hi-Res quality streaming, with DSD quality to follow in September.

The package costs €349.99 a year, against €219.99 for the Sublime offer which is at Flac quality, and it has 70,000 albums available at Hi-Res level. Both packages also discounts of up to 60% for downloads.

Xandrie, the French digital cultural company that took over Qobuz in December 2015, has retained founder Yves Riesel as consultant. Qobuz said it little traffic for its low-end mp3 streaming offer of €9.99 a month but that clients for Sublime package spent an astonishing average of €700 a year on downloads.

From Australia to the Netherlands to New York, artists are striving to find their own spaces to stage the experimental works conventional venues shun.

Three of those efforts were profiled in a session titled Creating the Plug & Play: The New Collectives.

Violist and curator Phoebe Green offered an Australian perspective: a group of experimental musicians in Melbourne had found a church that offered ideal elements – a good acoustic, affordable rent and decent piano. But, she added, in Sydney the supply of small performance spaces was shrinking, affecting not only experimental groups but also performers seeking rehearsal space for concerts to be given at larger venues.

By contrast, David Dramm, vice-chairman of the Dutch Composers Association, told of a group of 50 musicians in Amsterdam who believe in performing without programmes. Members of this group ranged from singers in Netherlands Opera to a trumpeter, jazz band leaders and a tap dancer.

They sought to take over a derelict bathhouse and finance it by charging a planned 1,250 subscribers to their organisation €100 a year, in return for which each of the 50 performers would put on one concert a year for free.

However, they were dismayed to be told by the city council that they would have to finance immediately the cost of restoring the bathhouse, which they decided to do by issuing bonds to members. ‘Instead of paying interest, the musicians offered to give one free private concert for each bond, so if you took four bonds you could have a string quartet.’ The building is now restored and membership is almost at the targeted 1,250 subscribers.

Less successful was the New York venture described by Judd Greenstein, of Amsterdam Records, in which a group of musicians took over a 2,000 square foot warehouse space for restoration, only to see it destroyed by a hurricane. The group is still looking for a home.

Car Parks or Concert Halls? Was the question posed for one session, but the panel was unanimous in saying the answer is both.

Arts venue design consultant Tateo Nakajima said his focus was context, ‘starting with what is the character of what you are doing’.

But music groups often found it difficult to put into words what sound they were seeking. One client told him that sound that represented Kiev was ‘all about the feminine, a darker coloured sound, sensual’. Mr Nakajima added: ‘Believe it or not, that was a tremendously interesting design brief.’

Natalia Klingbajl, manager of Poland’s NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic, said the city authorities took the risk of commissioning a new complex of four halls, the largest seating 1,800, to replace an old, unattractive 400-seat venue that the orchestra had difficulty filling. In 2005, when the base was the old building, the city had one orchestra and one annual festival; today it has 11 ensembles and seven festivals, and seasonal attendances had risen from 2,500 to 500,000.

But she said the question in the conference title was answered by either or. ‘We also go out to new audiences , we do concerts in private apartments and we also offer the wonderful experience of coming to the main concert hall.’

Mr Nakajima pointed out that in an era when many people listen to music on headphones it is ‘apersonalised and decontextualised’, so they needed to be lured back to listening in a social environment. ‘The existence of a robust street culture supports the high-quality experience, it is one continuum.’

Joolz Gale, director of Ensemble Mini, gave examples of venues he has used in Berlin to attract new listeners to 19th century and early 20th century repertoire, including a wartime bunker and a derelict swimming baths. ‘It is taking music to a place where people think it would be cool to go to a concert.’

Classical music must embrace the much-derided playlist as a tool that can help its transition to streaming, speakers on the future of the platform agreed.

Markus Petersen of Warner Classics referred to Spotify’s list of the top 10 classical playlists and said that while he would like to see more non-piano examples, streaming consumers found them an essential way of exploring unfamiliar music.

While streaming represents less than 10% of record company revenue, ‘we need to think five years ahead from now’. That is the time-frame for A&R, and the industry had to hope streaming would represent more than 10% of revenue by then.

Fellow panelist Lorna Aizelwood of IMG Artists said her fellow managers also needed to get to grips with the digital era. ‘Most managers are essentially just bookers,’ she said. But artists also had to be more digitally active.

‘We have to accept we are a niche genre and act like a niche genre,’ she said, citing the example of folk musicians who are constantly in touch with their audience.

Florian Drücke of the Bundesverband Musikindustrie federation, warned that 80% of music listeners were going to YouTube, providing no revenue to the industry. Mr Petersen said this was ‘the elephant in the room’, the YT channels that were attracting 100 million listeners to unlicensed streams.

This, Mr Drücke said, was not user-generated music but user-uploaded content which had no creative aspect.

Fragmentation of music management was the topic for a session titled The devil is in the Details.

On the podium were Stephen Lumsden, founder and managing director of Intermusica, Sune Hjerrild, ceo of TrueLinked, a network of several thousand artists and concert promoters which the former tenor founded in frustration at the lack of transparency in concert management, and Kaylie Melville, a percussionist who manages her own career.

Mr Lumsden said managers today had to get artists to face the challenges of the digital world nut he stressed that the relationship with them was ‘an enormous investment’ over the long term. ‘I do think there are managers who do not take that seriously enough.’

Mr Hjerrild agreed that there were some among the 5000 traditional agencies that artists described as ‘terminators’. But overall, he argued, only 10% of artists on their books were nurtured by agencies, while the other 90% were given the occasional concert.

TrueLinked sought to connect more than 3,000 artists with promoters, taking a 6% commission on engagements.

Ms Melville admitted that she had opted for self-management because of the geographic isolation of Australia and the fact that she was a solo percussionists performing contemporary music. International engagements came her way only through her own travel or recommendations from overseas colleagues.

Asked what they could do to boost her career, Mr Hjerrild pointed out that the internet provided global communication with his network while Mr Lumsden said she might well be attractive to an agency such as his because she was working with living composers who might attract new listeners.

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