BBC Offers "The Beethoven Experience"

Starting on Sunday, June 4, and continuing through Friday, June 10, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) will broadcast all of Beethoven's compositions as "The Beethoven Experience."

In order to cram all of that Beethoven onto its airwaves, the BBC is cancelling all other Radio 3 programming to focus on round-the-clock Beethoven for six days. In addition, the BBC is broadcasting the complete cycle of nine symphonies in specially commissioned performances by the BBC Philharmonic, under the direction of Gianandrea Noseda, during the month of June. And, in an unprecedented action, those performances will be made available for free download for one week, starting the day after they have been broadcast.

The BBC's Guide to Digital Music Downloads isn't clear about how compressed the MP3 files it is offering are, or even whether or not they contain DRM—although the FAQ on the site implies that the free downloads, unlike its paid downloads, do not. Even so, the operative word here is "free," and "The Beethoven Experience" is a bold experiment in whether or not free music stimulates legitimate music sales or suppresses them.

Music critic Norman Lebrecht, writing in The Scotsman, quotes Channel 3 comptroller Roger Wright: "We'll share what we've learned with the unions, with other orchestras, and with the music industry."

We suspect that we won't really learn "what we've learned" for quite a while, however. It's not as clear-cut as many pundits might believe. According to a recent NPD Group survey, the "ripping" of music to computers had risen by 52% in March 2005, compared to March 2004. Over that same span, paid downloads increased by 93%; NPD also reported a 25% increase in illegal downloads in that one-year period.

Simple analyses of downloading almost certainly get the dynamic wrong—the question is not as simple as theft or purchase. As reader Nick Paterson-Morgan recently wrote, "It seems to me that the music industry's fatal flaw of logic is to assume that every copied/downloaded track is a lost sale—it isn't.... In reality the whole MP3/download phenomenon is a modern alternative to music radio; it allows consumers to filter what's out there and purchase what they really like and can afford."

Paterson-Morgan points out that most music lovers discover new music in a variety of ways—radio, recording, and ripping, perhaps—but ultimately find copies a pale imitation of the "real" thing. He opines, "The music industry should see this as the opportunity it clearly is, rather than trying to criminalize those upon whom their future prosperity absolutely depends." Perhaps the BBC's "Beethoven Experience" will help shed some light on this tricky question.