Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Cyberspace Audience

Those who have been following my "more formal gig" on know that I have taken a great interest in opportunities for concert experiences in cyberspace. Last night Laura Battle filed a story for this morning's Financial Times site that has taken my interest to the next level, considering the extent to which cyberspace may be a game-changer for the very nature of the business of classical music performance. As a case study she decided to examine Plushmusic, which she introduced as follows:

Since the mid-1990s the classical music industry has been accused of myopically cultivating a handful of profitable stars – many of them so-called “crossover” as opposed to echt-classical – to the detriment of up-and-coming musicians, who find it increasingly difficult to set up recording contracts. With the advent of broadband internet these performers and composers have been able to bite back by posting high-quality music samples and MP3 files on their personal websites or social networking profiles, and thereby undercutting the traditional dependence on labels. But until recently they have lacked support or a sense of community.

This looks set to change with the development of Plushmusic, a new kind of music website that went live last November and has just received its official launch. In the words of its founder and artistic director Adrian Brendel, cellist and son of the great pianist Alfred Brendel, it was “born out of the idea of giving musicians the opportunity to record things in a different way, and to use new technology for new projects”. The Plushmusic name might sound a bit kitschy (it could almost inspire a new subgenre of “easy listening” – heaven forbid) but its origins are reassuringly wholesome: in 1995 Brendel founded a chamber music festival in the Dorset village of Plush and the website has developed as an extension of its values and activities.

As at Plush, there is a strong emphasis on chamber music but there are also designated areas for opera, jazz and world music. Individual artists are given “channels”, where they can they can post free video excerpts or charge users for a complete streaming or download of a live concert recording. Classical guitarist Zoran Dukic, for example, has posted a number of free audio clips, while Julian Steckel has made available a film of himself performing Kaija Saariaho’s short piece for solo cello Spins and Spells, and pianist Aleksandar Madzar is charging £9.99 for a high definition recording of a concert he performed at last year’s Plush festival.

I have visited this site, and I must say that I came away very impressed. Thus, I believe that the conclusion of her piece deserves serious attention:

When asked if Plushmusic could pose a threat to the traditional record label, Brendel admits the project will prove “very subjective”, and explains that while Hyperion has been keen to engage, believing the project can be mutually beneficial, other labels have been less enthusiastic.

“It’s such a volatile space at the moment because no one really knows what’s going to happen in the short term or long term with the recording industry, but we’re seeing more and more general interest and we’re really encouraged by the reaction of musicians.”

It is, of course, early days, but if Plushmusic gathers pace and power the consequences could be quite provocative. Once sites such as this successfully supplant the role of record labels, it can’t be long before people begin to question the necessity of agents: if musicians can manage and market their own recordings, if they can nurture relationships with opera houses, music venues and festivals around the world, and interact directly with a pre-existing and potential audience, what need is there for middlemen?

Disintermediation has, of course, been one of the primary watchwords of e-commerce; and I suspect that debates will continue to rage over whether it is a virtue or a vice. However, what Battle neglected to examine in her report was the implications of these new cyberspace strategies for audiences, rather than performers or promoters. What will happen to performance practices if physical presence is displaced by virtual presence?

There is no simple answer to this question; and I suspect that, now that the seed has been planted in my mind, I am likely to cultivate it in a variety of ways in future writing (possible on as well as on this blog). The good news is that we are talking about something on a higher level than downloading a file for your iPod: The concert performance of music deserves more attention than it would receive if you are filling your ears with background sounds to block out realities you would do better not to ignore. However, a concert experience in the physical world is a social one, even when it involves little more than awareness of the audience sharing the experience with you. The risk that cyberspace will turn this experience into a purely subjective one, thereby impoverishing it, cannot be ignored. After all, even going to a movie theater to experience an HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera is a social experience that cannot necessarily be maintained through a computer screen. With the convergence (to invoke another watchword) of the Internet with television, some of that social experience may transplant to living rooms, as it tends to do for many sports events; but I would be reluctant to consider a World Series game as a model for concerts (which may be a mistake on my part)!

There are performers, such as Glenn Gould, for whom the audience did not matter. They are currently in a minority, and I hope they stay that way. This is not just because, where concert music is concerned, my only role is as audience. It is also because the social world is as important to the performance of music as I have argued it is to the development of technologies. Herman Hesse's Glass Bead Game was ultimately a reductio ad absurdum of what happens when artifacts of creation are abstracted beyond experiences (even as audience) of creation. We must avoid the risk that the Internet will bring us closer to making that risk a reality.

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