An important new development for BBC Radio 3 is their move into online MP3 file downloads, as opposed to audio streaming. MP3 files of the Beethoven Symphonies played by the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda are available from their web site for two days after broadcast as part of their Beethoven fest.
Open this link to access the downloads, but hurry as the downloads are available for a limited period.
These downloads are free. There is a fair amount of small print on the site about the files only being available for personal, non-commercial use. Radio 3 controller Roger Wright has said in a press release "We hope it will encourage audiences to explore online classical music."
The motive of trying to reach more listeners for classical music is very laudable, and has taxed music bloggers for some time. But since the Beethoven MP3 files became available in early June the BBC has said that more than 700,000 listeners downloaded files of the first five symphonies. I repeat that figure. Almost three quarters of a million downloads, or 140,000 per symphony.
I can't help but find a certain irony that these statistics are published in the same week as the music industry driven US Supreme Court ruling on file-sharing which ruled that distribution platforms such as Grokster can be held legally responsible if used for copyright infringement. Now I know that the BBC iniative is totally copyright friendly. But doesn't it send a clear mesage to those very listeners that Roger Wright is trying to reach that online classical music is free? And doesn't it also materially lower the price expectation for concert tickets among those same new listeners?
I'm well aware of the study by Harvard Business School associate professor Felix Oberholzer and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill associate professor Koleman Strumpf:
"We find that file sharing has only had a limited effect on record sales," the study's authors wrote. "While downloads occur on a vast scale, most users are likely individuals who would not have bought the album even in the absence of file sharing."
But the fact remains that a record company, or concert promoter, would give their right arm to have got just a tiny fraction of those 700,000 listeners as customers. (The figure must surely reach a million before the symphony cycle is complete?). Similarly the hard working musicians of the wonderful BBC Philharmonic who play on these downloads would surely appreciate remuneration at more than the pitiful rate received by LSO musicians on LSO Live recordings of a measly £400 - US$728 - each annual profit share? This move also undermines the smart work being done by sites such as Peter Maxwell Davies' MaxOpus to create a 'pay to use' business model for classical MP3 downloads.
Despite high minded talk from senior BBC executives it is hard to see who the winners in this exercise are. Except, of course, the audio file downloaders. And these are the very same people that the music industry is currently trying to teach in the US Supreme Court at vast expense, and with much bad PR, that the creators of intellectual property need to be properly rewarded.
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