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Orchestras Search for Download Audience


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Howard Berkes. American orchestras are looking hungrily at digital download websites like iTunes as a new way to get their music out. Yesterday, Jeff Lunden reported that classical musical lovers are downloading more and more. Today he looks at what two orchestras are doing to grab some of that market.

(Soundbite of New York Philharmonic symphony orchestra)

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

At one time, the New York Philharmonic was one of the most widely recorded symphony orchestras, something that enhanced their international reputation. But for years they've been without a recording contract. So shortly after Zarin Mehta took over as the Philharmonic's executive director six years ago, he began calling major record labels to see if he could turn things around.

Mr. ZARIN MEHTA (Executive Director, New York Philharmonic): It really became evident that you can't force the idea of saying you want to make recordings if the market isn't there. The market has been saturated with CDs over the last 25 years, and nobody was buying them. I was not going in and buying my 15th Brahms symphony, you know.

LUNDEN: Not only were classical CD sales spiraling downward, but costs for orchestral recordings were spiraling upward, says Chris Roberts, chairman of Universal Classics, the parent company for Deutsche Grammophon and Decca.

Mr. CHRIS ROBERTS (Chairman, Universal Classics): Often times it would be, you know, upwards of $150,000 to make a recording, and you could do it for significantly less, not with every orchestra in Europe, but with many first-rate orchestras.

LUNDEN: Labor costs in the U.S. are high since musicians are paid upfront for traditional studio recordings, but there are other costs for CDs as well, says Anastasia Tsioulcas, classical music columnist for Billboard magazine.

Ms. ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS (Billboard Magazine): You're talking about not just the recording and the mastering and the engineering and the promotion and publicity. You're also talking about distribution. You're talking about the cost of warehousing CDs, and it very quickly adds up.

LUNDEN: Now that iPods, MP3 players and digital downloads have hit critical mass with the listening public, some orchestras see this as an opportunity to change the economics and get new recordings out inexpensively. The New York Philharmonic finally got a contract with Deutsche Grammophon to provide four live concert recordings, available exclusively for download on iTunes under the label of DG Concerts. One of the keys to making this deal happen was getting the Philharmonic's musicians to agree not to be paid upfront, says executive director Zarin Mehta.

Mr. MEHTA: They're playing the concert. They're not spending any more time. We're just saying that we are taking your product and broadcasting it, and so we said, why don't we start thinking in terms of revenue sharing?

LUNDEN: So if the recordings make any money, the Philharmonic's musicians will make a royalty, as will the orchestra itself. When their debut recording of Mozart's symphonies was released on iTunes in March, it quickly became the top classical download, 36th on iTunes overall. That sounds good, but how many recordings did they actually sell? Universal's Chris Roberts...

Mr. ROBERTS: I think it was about 900 in the first week and 700 in the second week.

(Soundbite of Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra)

LUNDEN: Like the New York Philharmonic, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has decided to distribute recordings over the Internet, but instead of hooking up with a record company, they've created their own label, MSO Classics. It launched on iTunes last October, taking advantage of recordings from the symphony's archives, says principal violist Robert Levine.

Mr. ROBERT LEVINE (Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra): We've been recording for national broadcast some 13 to 15 of our subscription concerts for the past three decades, so we had a lot of product in the can.

LUNDEN: The initial releases were mostly classical bread-and-butter items: Brahms, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky symphonies, where no soloists or royalties had to be paid. But the MSO also released a world premiere recording of Roberto Sierra's Third Symphony, subtitled La Salsa.

(Soundbite of Sinfonia No. 3, "La Salsa")

LUNDEN: Again, sales have been modest for this venture, about the equivalent of 200 CDs a month. Still, the MSO's Robert Levine sees an advantage for the orchestra.

Mr. LEVINE: It's not bad for a start, and it's 200 people a month that wouldn't hear us otherwise, and certainly in the case of the Sierra, it's 200 people that would never have heard that piece otherwise.

LUNDEN: Even though the jury is still out about the commercial prospects of this new means of distribution, for the orchestras involved, it's a way to keep their music and their profile in the spotlight, says Milwaukee's Robert Levine.

Mr. LEVINE: Where we live is on stage playing live concerts for live people. You know, this has got to support that mission, but I think really for the first time since radio came in, there's a possibility that we can use electronic media to really support our core mission. That to me is what's so exciting about this whole thing.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.

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