BBC Beethoven Aftershocks

Back in June, we reported on the BBC's "The Beethoven Experience", described as "a bold experiment in whether or not free music stimulates legitimate music sales or suppresses them." Last week, The Independent published a terse 200-word article, reporting that the Beeb had downloaded one million files during the Experience, and stating "The initiative has infuriated the bosses of leading classical record companies, who argue the offer undermines the value of music and that any further offers would be unfair competition."

At Corante, Wendy Seltzer dismisses that notion. "If few people want to pay for your product, it doesn't have much market value, no matter how much you want to charge," she notes, pointing out that one million downloads in less than a month is a fairly significant market expansion for an industry that only sold 14 million CDs in the last year.

Ah, we hear you thinking, what market expansion? That is precisely the problem the classical recording industry has been facing lately: nobody's buying, the labels complain. Well, whose fault is that? If downloading was the real reason the classical recording industry was on the ropes, we'd have probably heard about all of the classical P2P networks out there. We haven't, of course. In fact, the major labels have been complaining that classical music is so dead that they haven't even been able to give it away.

The Beethoven Experience shows that you can give it away. We'll have to wait and see whether new listeners, now that they've been exposed to classical music, will want more of it—and if they're willing to pay for it. My guess is that they will, but perhaps not as much as the major labels would like. After all, one of the few success stories in the classical bins at mainstream record stores has been the continued sales of the budget classical label Naxos, which has even managed to sell CDs by obscure composers and discs of challenging contemporary works.

All of that illustrates that people are still interested in Beethoven and classical music. To paraphrase the old joke, now that we've established that, all we need to do is negotiate price.