Detroit Symphony Dives Headlong Into Streaming

Mar 21

8:00 AM

By Erin Piscopink

Tagged: All Neighborhoods

Read the New York Times article in its original format HERE

Detroit Symphony Dives Headlong Into Streaming

Michael Cooper and Rebecca Schmid for
The New York Times

DETROIT — Orchestras and opera companies in the United States and Europe, facing uncertain futures and rapid changes in how people listen to music, are increasingly making forays into web streaming, taking one of Western culture's most traditional live art forms out of theaters and concert halls and putting it onto small screens.

The Vienna State Opera recently joined the Berlin Philharmonic in charging for subscriptions to its own streaming portals and smart-television apps, seeing them as potential sources of new revenue. The Bavarian State Opera streams some live performances free, seeing the webcasts as a way to build excitement around its work. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's free live stream of the Verdi Requiem last year drew more than 130,000 viewers, who caught it on more than 30 different websites.

But perhaps unexpectedly, given the dire state of Detroit's fortunes, the cutting edge for the phenomenon in this country lies here, where the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has the most ambitious free web-streaming program of any major American orchestra, as it looks online to help secure its future after surviving a bitter strike, the struggles of the auto industry and the bankruptcy of its city.

The orchestra now streams about 20 live concerts from Orchestra Hall here free each season. And it is getting an upgrade this week: six tiny new cameras, positioned around its restored 1919 hall and controlled remotely by a joystick in the basement. They will be used for the first time on Saturday night to shoot the orchestra's concert of Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov and a James MacMillan piano concerto played by Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

"They look like those traffic cameras, in a way," the orchestra's music director, Leonard Slatkin, said after seeing the new cameras for the first time at a rehearsal this week. "So when I go fast, I'll get a speeding ticket!"

No one is quite sure how the trend will end up, and whether it will succeed at making money or building audiences. But many music organizations say they believe such web streams will prove helpful, saying that they must find audiences where they are, in an era when sales of CDs and digital downloads are declining, and streaming services like Spotify and Pandora are growing rapidly. YouTube is now one of the world's biggest music platforms, especially for young people.

Deborah F. Rutter, the president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, said the changing industry required new approaches.

"My daughter is a rabid music consumer but doesn't own a single piece of anything," Ms. Rutter said by telephone. "If I want to interest her in concerts, I need to communicate with her in the way that she listens and learns."

For music lovers, the new landscape offers tremendous promise, but also confusion. Some orchestras, like the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, only offer apps (the Concertgebouw calls its a "video magazine") that work on iPads and iPhones, while others stream live on the web. Sound quality over computer speakers is not always great. The Vienna State Opera has a smart TV app, but it works only on Samsungs. And fans of classical music, who tend to be a bit older than, say, the average Lorde fan, are not always comfortable adapting to new technologies.

Yet many groups said that by starting now, they hope to be well positioned when streaming becomes even easier.

The website, which began with a stream from the Verbier Festival in Switzerland in 2007 and now works with two dozen orchestras and concert halls, as well as festivals, had nearly 1.5 million unique visitors in 2013, up from 882,000 the previous year. Hervé Boissière, its founder, said, "It is important to take risks now, to be ahead of the game, because those that will succeed at positioning themselves well now will have great options in the future."

With classical organizations and musicians no longer able to rely on a healthy recording industry or substantial television coverage, the digital age is forcing them to find new ways to connect with listeners and build their brands. In recent years, many started their own labels to record CDs and digital downloads; now many are streaming.

The Metropolitan Opera, which streams the audio of operas free once a week on its website, has begun Met Opera on Demand, a subscription service costing $14.99 a month that offers video and audio performance from the Met's archives. Separately, the Met has pioneered the simulcasting of live performances in movie theaters.

But the numbers of viewers for the new online offerings is generally small so far, especially for sites that charge. The Berlin Philharmonic, through its Digital Concert Hall, now streams every program it plays at home to some 18,000 subscribers, who pay about $20 a month for access to all live concerts and to its growing archive.

In Detroit, where the orchestra's shaky finances in recent years led to a near-death experience and a grueling strike, officials decided early on that they wanted their webcasts to be free, said Anne Parsons, the orchestra's president and chief executive. At the same time, they lowered ticket prices, began scheduling concerts in different neighborhoods and took to calling the ensemble "the most accessible orchestra on the planet."

All of those initiatives, she said, have helped the orchestra raise more in donations, sell more tickets and, last year, balance its budget for the first time since 2007.

The number of people who tune in to Detroit's webcasts is still modest: The orchestra says that, on average, a little more than 2,500 stream each concert. But that is more than can sit in the hall, and over the years, the ensemble estimates that nearly half a million have watched.

Now the orchestra hears from Facebook fans in the South; some soloists have gotten offers based on the webcasts; and when the composer Ferran Cruixent was unable to leave Spain in the fall when the orchestra played his work "Cyborg," he was able to watch online.

Detroit streams more than other American orchestras partly because the labor contract that settled its six-month strike in 2011, which cut the wages of musicians significantly, gave it the ability to stream its concerts, the orchestra said. It also received several major donations and the cooperation of Detroit Public Television to help get the program started.

Other entities are seeking new labor agreements to make it cheaper and easier to stream performances. When Carnegie Hall settled a strike with its stagehands' union last fall, it got a provision that it said would make streaming concerts from 57th Street more viable.

As Mr. Slatkin rehearsed the orchestra onstage here the other day, Oriol Sans, the webcast's artistic director, was in the basement, turning pages of a score of "Scheherazade" with one hand while beating time with the other and calling out cues to a small team as electricians put the finishing touches on the wiring. Warren Wilson, who operated the joystick controls, got a feel for the cameras. Their run-through of "Scheherazade" had 351 shots.

At one point, Randall Hawes, who plays bass trombone, ducked into the room and marveled at the clarity of the picture. "We're going to have to shine our shoes," he said.