Classical Musicians Embrace the Internet

With the music industry in retreat from classical music, dozens of the nation’s symphony orchestras, opera and ballet companies have decided to bring their work directly to the people. On June 12, an association of 66 orchestras and opera groups signed an agreement with the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) that will let them put their music on the Internet, without interference or fee extraction by the recording business.

The agreement was reached after a year of negotiations between the AFM and executives of the top classical organizations in the US, including management representatives from the New York Philharmonic; the Metropolitan Opera; the New York City Ballet; the Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras; the San Francisco, St. Louis, National, and Milwaukee Symphonies; and the Pittsburgh and Houston Grand Operas. The plan is to allow downloading of music from the orchestras’ own websites or from sites licensed to use it, with compensation to the musicians figured on a pay-per-use basis. Representatives from the union and from the various orchestras will decide on the compensation to be given participating musicians.

Live “streaming audio” concerts are another possibility, the first few of which will likely be free to listeners, supported by advertising, as they have always been on the radio. "My personal belief is that the culture of the Internet is based on the premise that content is free," said Joseph Kluger, Philadelphia Orchestra president. "I think that at first, most orchestras will end up offering their music for streaming, free to the consumer." Although downloading and streaming audio are still riddled with glitches today, the rapid increase in the availability of high-speed Internet access will make high-quality digital audio commonplace in the near future.

Classical music (and jazz to a lesser extent) has always been a labor of love for the music industry because it sells in much smaller numbers than pop music. The love that overwhelmed the cold logic of business has diminished as a new generation of executives has taken its place in the industry—a generation with neither concern nor attachment to a form of music many dismiss as no longer relevant. At present, only two major American orchestras, the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, still have recording contracts. Organizations with long recording histories have been abandoned by the record labels. "In the classical field we're seeing record companies being shut down or downsized; symphony orchestras with standing contracts are being canceled," said Florence Nelson, director of the AFM's Symphonic Services Division.

The decision by musicians to go online is a move to take back control of their professional lives from the whims of executives; the agreement gives them an unprecedented degree of control over which performances will be marketed. "We're encouraging musicians and orchestras to go directly to their audiences and bypass the traditional gatekeepers of the recording industry," Kluger commented. "I think the whole Napster debate, for instance—as to whether music should be free or is there an intellectual property right—is a false choice. It is in the interest of the artists to promote themselves and use streaming technology as a way to generate attention, but there is also an intellectual property right. So just as you can hear music free on the radio, the Internet will also be used as a way to promote live performances and encourage people to purchase downloads. I have confidence that the public will recognize that performers deserve some compensation for the works they create." If ratified by both musicians and orchestra executives, the agreement will be retroactive to this past February and will be effective through January 31, 2002.