Monday, August 01, 2005

Music-like-water

A world where music is available via the latest technologies for a single monthly subscription charge. A world with unlimited access to a huge range of music. A world where the music business will explode and reinvent itself. A world where listeners are empowered, and the reach of new music is limited only by your own imagination. A world where the major record companies aren’t invited to the party. A world where music becomes a utility on tap, just like gas and electricity. A world where music is like water.

No, Pliable hasn’t been on the wacky backy again. Music-like-water is the title of a really thought provoking paper from Gerd Leonhard published on New Music Box, the web magazine of the American Music Center. (And many thanks to Garth Trinkl who blogs at Renaissance Research for bringing it to my attention). Leonhard is the founder of ThinkAndLink, a consultancy working in the area of convergence between the entertainment and technology sectors. When he is not future-gazing Leonhard is a pretty mean guitarist and composer, and winner of a Quincy Jones Award. His blog is also worth a visit.

The main thrust of Leonhard’s paper is that consumers are now taking charge of their own entertainment, and the borders between performance and copy, and access and ownership have been crossed. He says the music business is rapidly moving towards a flat charge for access, and away from the historic, and clumsy, pay per performance model. A flat charge for access is how utility providers operate, and is where his catchy music-like-water moniker comes from. Leonhard predicts that once distribution is no longer a barrier to entry, the music market will explode. And the traditional record companies will be left for dead as new players control the flow of music-like-water.

Fanciful? Unlikely to happen in our lifetime? Harmless crystal ball gazing? I don’t think so. Music-like-water has already arrived. Just last week mobile (cell) phone operator T-Mobile announced an 18 month deal with Robbie Williams, which will make some of his songs and concert footage available exclusively over the phone network - presumably music will follow.

I have already written about Naxos Radio. This subscription service is pure music-like-water. It has 60 channels of different classical music genres, with each offering 100 hours of unduplicated music at 64Kpbs, which is pretty close to CD quality. All channels are commercial free, and new recordings are added at around 50 per month. And now Naxos are starting to loan recordings through public libraries. They are already a global force with a dominant share of classical CD sales in most major markets worldwide as the following figures show: UK - 15%, Finland - 40%, Sweden - 50%, Norway - 50%, Denmark -30%, Canada - 25%, Greece - 45%, South Africa - 45%, Spain - 20% and Germany - 20%. In the United States, Soundscan lists Naxos as the leading independent classical music label. Naxos’ business model is music-like-water, and it is here today.

The BBC has one of the three best known brand names in the world. They have a guaranteed war-chest from a poll tax on UK residents (disguised as a license fee) of nearly £3 billion ($5.5 billion) a year. The BBC will have an increasing impact outside the UK as music-like-water flows uninterrupted across geographic boundaries. Inside information leaked from the BBC in the last few days indicates that more than half of the much-trumpeted 1.4 million Beethoven MP3 files went to US downloaders. (Personally I am not convinced that this music giveaway was the best possible use of the £126.50 ($230US) annual license fee I have to pay the BBC. Particularly when 3780 of their staff are being cut to save costs, and domestic programming is full of cost saving repeats.)


The BBC has complete control, including broadcasts, public performances, touring, and programmes, of five leading orchestras, plus the BBC Singers. They also have total control over the world's largest music festival, the BBC Promenade Concerts. This employs musicians ranging from the Berlin Philharmonic to Ravi Shankar.

The BBC has one of the largest commissioning budgets for new music, with an annual spend in excess of £350,000 ($630,000). This commissioning budget is larger than the turnover of many independent record companies. It is quite wonderful that the BBC is able to fund the creation of so much new music, and this year's new music feast at the Proms is an excellent example of money very well spent. But conversely, misuse of their commissioning budget and programming authority can stifle new talent. This allegedly happened to tonal composer Robert Simpson, and others, in the 1970's under the regime of progressive Director of Music William Glock and modernist Principal Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra Pierre Boulez. The BBC is already supplying every channel through which music can flow - live music making, CDs, DVD’s, satellite, FM, AM, web and on-demand broadcasts, music book and magazine publishing and MP3 files. The BBC’s business model is music-like-water, and it is here today.

Gerd Leonhard says that in the new music-like-water order “all music, all artists will be in those pipelines.” And this is where we start to differ. Dream on Gerd. Music-like-water won’t bring a utopia where every recording, of every work, by every composer from Evaristo Abaco to Johann Zumsteeg, is available via the technology of your choice. What will happen, no what is happening, is the new utility companies become gate keepers. And Pliable’s first sonata for prepared piano and vihuela won’t get through the gate unless I cut a deal with the keeper. And financially that means I am better off clearing tables in a fast food joint than composing music. Pessimism on my part? No, fact. Amazon.com, with their world-wide operating companies, are a global gatekeeper in the brave new books-like-water world. Which means if you are a small specialist book publisher they will surcharge your book before they list it. (Believe me I know, I am also a small publisher). And the global gatekeepers are already flexing their muscles in the music-like-water world. I wonder what role Naxos played in Marin Alsop’s appointment in Baltimore?

Music-like-water is here to stay. And I don’t particularly like the taste of it. But the good news is Pliable doesn’t have to exist on water alone. I prefer music-like-Château Latour. And that also is here today. Volume 24 of the John Elliot Gardiner Bach Cantata Pilgrimage has just arrived chez Pliable. This remarkable project was conceived to bypass a global gatekeeper (Universal Music) who wanted to restrict the flow of music-like-water by shelving Gardiner's visionary Bach Cantata project.

I wrote a very positive post about John Eliot Gardiner’s Soli Deo Gloria record company when their first releases came out. Suffice to say their new double CD of the cantatas for the Third and Fourth Sundays after Easter is a work of art in every respect, and even surpasses the outstanding vintage of the first volumes. Exquisite and tactile packaging that revives the long lost art of sleeve design. Informative and entertaining sleeve notes. Perfect bound slip cases. And the music, the music…..the sinfonia from this recording of BWV 146, recorded in the Schlosskirche Altenburg, with its mighty Trost Organ, is music to die for.

Yea, music-like-water is the way to go. And I’ll keep writing about it while I sip my music-like-Château Latour thanks very much.

And here, courtesy of SDG, is your chance to taste some premier cru music making from Volume 24 of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. These are decent length extracts, not the Amazon type snippets. My first paragraph talked about music by subscription. And in a wonderful example of the overgrown path coming full circle the complete cycle of SDG's Bach Cantatas is available by subscription. Which just goes to show that, despite what the futurologists may tell us, there is nothing new under the musical sun - cheers!

Freue Dich Erloste Schar BWV 30 - no. 1 chorus.....
Freue Dich Erloste Schar BWV 30 - no 5 aria (Wilke te Brummelstroete, alto)....
O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort BWV 20 - no.1 chorus....
Die Elenden sollen essen BWV 75 - no 7 chorale....

Was Robert Simpson's music unfairly neglected in the Glock/Boulez era at the BBC? Judge for yourself with these two samples from Hyperion's excellent cycle of his complete symphonies:
Robert Simpson, Symphony no.1 (1951), 1st movement (opening) [4'48]...
Robert Simpson, Symphony no.2 (1956), 3rd movement Allegro grazioso (opening) [3'51]...

Do you think music-like-water is the future? Or will the independent specialists like Soli Deo Gloria continue to set the benchmark? Was Robert Simpson's neglect by the BBC justified?Add your views to this post using the comments feature at the foot.

If you found this article useful share it with friends and colleagues by emailing it to them, including the music links, using the envelope icon below.

And if you enjoyed this post there is more like it at Discovered - the online Arnold Schoenberg jukebox

2 comments:

Pliable said...

And here is the executive summary, aka haiku version, of the previous 1499 words....

Water from faucets
sounds like a listener's dream -
will hurt true artists

jeff harrington said...

Hehe... I disagree!


The faucet pours,
all music's sounds,
those with merit are not ignored.


My faucet has been open a long time...