By Laurence Vittes | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine
As it became obvious to the classical-music world that live concerts would not return to previous levels for far longer than a few months, many have turned to an audience-engagement component that had been overlooked: livestreaming. Because live concerts dominated the performance space, most organizations had not yet considered selling livestreaming tickets for simulcasts. In the absence of the traditional revenue stream, the idea of paid, livestreaming concerts is being busily mined by the most creative minds in music and education.
Around the country, major orchestras jumped into action. The Minnesota Orchestra redesigned its fall concert season for TV, radio, and streaming audiences. The Sun Valley Music Festival announced programming for its online 2020 summer season. The Seattle Symphony has been livestreaming new concerts every week through Seattle Symphony Live. The Houston Symphony, which opened its season on schedule in September, welcomed Hilary Hahn, playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, “The Turkish,” in November, offering tickets for both in-person attendance and livestreaming. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s streaming has been going “exceptionally well since 2017,” according to orchestra administrators, using a multi-camera, high-definition video system built into their hall. The exceptionally high video quality is designed to recreate the experience a visitor would get from attending a concert in person.
In Cincinnati, the symphony embarked on the robust Live from Music Hall Digital Series Program, part of a highly creative, energetic, all-out effort to engage and serve a community with close ties to both the symphony and the Pops. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s livestreams from its own DiMenna Center for Classical Music, which it calls New York City’s only acoustically optimized rehearsal and recording space dedicated to classical music. Also in New York, Tom Crawford’s period-instrument ensemble, the American Classical Orchestra, announced livestreams of Mozart and Beethoven.
Although major orchestras with their large audiences in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles have not yet begun livestreaming, they are investigating new technologies as they prepare to move forward. The Boston Symphony has done a great deal of newly recorded online streaming since the shutdown and performance hiatus in March, but hasn’t focused on livestreaming, describing the costs as “prohibitive.” And the New York Philharmonic produced a series of live outdoor performances earlier this fall with NY Phil Bandwagon.
The orchestras that can continue with or without livestreaming are the lucky ones. There are too many others on hiatus.
Many major European orchestras already had impressive production resources. Since starting its Digital Concert Hall in 2008, the Berlin Philharmonic, with a production staff of six, has streamed all of its concerts, at first live and later in a video archive. It has 65,000 subscribers. After concert activity was suspended in April, a virtual orchestra festival was initiated, which, during four free broadcasts, presented chamber-music performances plus highlights from the archive, film clips, and interviews with artists in the empty Philharmonie. It was watched by more than 90,000 viewers internationally. The concept is now being applied in a modified form: a new, fully mobile-optimized interface with new possibilities for providing curated content with recommendations, artists’ profiles and playlists, as well as a more comfortable search function. An “authentic” surround-sound audio initiative will use immersive multi-channel audio (Mpeg-H and Dolby Atmos).
In Amsterdam, a crew of ten people, including five dedicated to video alone, and all specialized in classical music, is streaming the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on Facebook, YouTube, and its own Vixy video website. In common with other orchestras, the RCO is examining the possibility of streaming only through a login on its website. Their figures so far are more modest than Berlin: an average of 1,500–2,000 viewers per livestream.
“The key to livestreaming success,” says Dresden Music Festival director Jan Vogler, who is working to build the festival’s livestream experience on Dreamstage Live, will be “high-quality platforms that host the streams. They have to enable a great experience for audiences and artists.” Vogler realized that promoting a livestream concert “is not that different from an in-person concert. You need to help with customer support and selling tickets, to market—ideally in collaboration with the artists. You have to get the word out, and the marketing component is very important. You have to bring the concerts to the audiences. People realize how essential and basic the desire is to make and listen to music.”
Asked when he expected livestreamed concerts and festivals to turn into viable revenue streams, Vogler answered emphatically, “Now! Now is the time to bring music to the audiences who are missing the live concerts. And when there are no in-person concerts happening in most parts of the world, it’s an ideal moment to build a worldwide audience.”
The founder of New York–based Unison Media, Andrew Ousley, is less certain that livestreaming is going to become “a really meaningful revenue stream to replace concert revenue, the way that streamed audio has replaced CDs as the dominant revenue stream for labels. The orchestras and presenters will literally need to completely shift to become media companies rather than live presenters, and there’s an entirely different skill set and vision required for that. Also, with livestreaming, you’re competing not just with other livestreamed events, but also everything that’s on HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. So, unless your symphony concert is better than Breaking Bad, it’s going to be tough to compete.”
The art is doing well even if the musicians are not. With only 200 people in the Bruckner Hall in Linz, Austria, Benjamin Schmid and the Orchester Wiener Akademie gave a serious, searing performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. “There was a different energy,” Schmid told me. “In fact, some halls sound better with less audience; they have more reverb. The orchestra had to get used to the acoustic distances between each other, but there was more room for the video.” Of course, in the end, Schmid says, “after the virus, we will have to get back to enjoying the energies of full halls and the thrill of living through this crisis together.”