Milwaukee Symphony's Digital Brew

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra announced the launch of its new e-label, MSO Classics, on October 4. In a worldwide digital distribution deal with IODA, the Independent Online Distribution Alliance, the symphony will draw on its archive of over 300 live performances recorded between 1970 and 2005 for airing on its nationally disseminated radio broadcasts.

Milwaukee thus becomes the first American orchestra to distribute online performances previously unavailable for purchase. The initial deal, which gives the iTunes Music Store exclusive distribution rights for the first 90 days, includes 14 titles.

MSO Classics' most unusual title is the world premiere of Puerto Rican–born composer Roberto Sierra's Third Symphony, taped within the last month by MSO's new recording engineer, Hudson Fair.

According to MSO principal violist Robert Levine, chairman emeritus of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, the orchestra felt so positive about Sierra's symphony that it decided to "push it through the pipeline." He suspects the title is the first classical world premiere available for worldwide distribution in such a short period of time.

"This may be the greatest potential for digital downloading—to let out new pieces in ways they were never before available."

Levine characterizes the rest of MSO's first wave as "low hanging fruit," public domain music with no copyright or soloist issues requiring separate negotiation. All conducted by Andreas Delf, the orchestra's longtime music director, the list includes Dvorak's Serenade for Winds; Haydn's Symphony 96; Mozart's Symphony 38; Beethoven's Symphonies 2 and 5; Brahms' Tragic Overture, Academic Festival Overture, Symphonies 1 and 2, The Song of Destiny, and The Song of Triumph; and a perennial blockbuster, Moussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain.

MSO, whose nationwide profile was almost entirely limited to radio, created the MSO Classics label specifically for Internet sales. The IODA then created album covers and UPC codes, digitized and encoded the files, and made them available to various online retailers starting with iTunes.

Files are in standard compressed format, with no immediate plans for lossless compression. Downloading follows the iTunes model. Tracks cost 99¢ each; if you wish to purchase a track that is over 10 minutes in length, you must purchase the entire symphony/album.

"If we had issued this music on CD," says Levine, "it would have been a multi–ten thousand dollar project. Instead, our actual out-of-pocket was a few thousand dollars. As a way of distributing music, it's incredibly elegant; there's no inventory to catalog and store. The fidelity issues are real, but I expect they'll get resolved."

Of the approximately 50 full-time orchestras in the US, Milwaukee ranks perhaps 20th in terms of budget. After the first-tier "Big Ten" US orchestras with a 52-week season, it is one of the few second-tier 40-week–year orchestras with a continuous media history of over two decades. Broadcast over the WFMT Fine Arts network, and recorded without compression—analog before 1992—MSO's archives include a host of wonderful performances, including some conducted by principal guest conductor Nicholas McGegan.

"This is all an experiment," says Levine. "We don't know who the audience will be. I suspect the main market will be our existing customer base. I could be wrong. Nobody knows."

Erik Gilbert, IODA's VP for content acquisition, explains that classical music remains sorely unrepresented online. MSO joins the London Symphony Orchestra's LSO label, Arabesque, Hänssler Classics, Harmonia Mundi, Coro from the UK, Other Minds, New Albion, Essay, the entire Naxos catalog, and a number of other independent labels and artists as pioneers in classical digital downloading. Another US orchestra and several in Europe are expected to join the fold within a few months.

"I would like to think that with online digital downloads," says Gilbert, "classical is reaching a much wider audience than it might otherwise."

Supporting evidence comes from analysis of the LSO label, whose most popular digital titles are in inverse proportion to its highest selling CD titles. The LSO's biggest online seller is Holst's The Planets, a blockbuster that committed audiophiles would no doubt prefer in high-resolution format. Others include a disc of film tunes that includes the James Bond Theme, and Beethoven's Symphony 9. The Beethoven made number 18 on the iTunes classical charts and has been on the charts for many months.

"If it sells well on CD, it sells less downloads," Gilbert continues. "My theory is that it's reaching a different audience. It's an audience that may not necessarily walk into a record store, or people who are buying just to try.

"We're seeing a lot of success for classical titles, in some cases selling better than other independent releases in other genres." Bach's Violin Concertos from the lovely Laura St. John, a fine player who poses for "very provocative" album covers and also shoots videos, was No.1 on iTunes for a couple of weeks.

"She really is opening up classical music to a wider audience," says Gilbert.

One can only admire St. John, who opens so much of herself in the process. Although the reverent JS Bach, who seems to have spent much of his down time producing children, might not have wished to express his approval in public, he no doubt would have been pleased at the downloading phenomenon, which promises extended life to his legacy.