Giving the masses a little free Beethoven

Downloads could introduce this music to new listeners

Classical Music: Commentary

August 28, 2005|By Paul Horsley | Paul Horsley,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Illegal Beethoven on your iPod? Scandale!

But future hope for the growth of classical music might indeed lie in that murkiest of netherworlds, the quasi-legal (and at times illegal) activity of downloading music from the Internet.

At least that's what a recent experiment by BBC Radio 3 suggests.

Earlier this summer, to promote an all-Beethoven week on the British airwaves, the service offered free downloads from its entire digital catalog of Beethoven symphonies. Listeners young and old loaded individual movements and whole symphonies onto their computers, iPods and handheld devices and are still listening to the thundering Fifth, the bucolic Sixth, the triumphant Ninth.

The staggering success of this publicity stunt - 1,369,893 downloads - caused pundits to muse on a new future for an old art form.

Some might consider it ironic that an art form Americans consider prim and proper might ultimately thrive on the vaguely disreputable free-for-all we call the Internet.

But in the words of Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, life finds a way.

Classical music is already thriving on peer-to-peer servers like Kazaa and BearShare, the same p2p sites that have gained notoriety as the place to "steal" pop music, movies and even television shows.

The BBC downloads provided a free and temporarily legal means for all manner of folks to listen to, evaluate and enjoy this music, unfettered by elitist prejudices, stuffy concert-hall etiquette or overpriced CDs.

Such initiatives are bound to fall on fertile soil in the United States, too. In the virtual absence of classical radio in America, the Internet can provide what radio does for other musical genres, namely a "free" means of hearing new and unfamiliar music, which if you like, you'll go out and buy.

But with the element of radio removed from the market structure, there are almost no places to randomly hear Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony or Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" while driving home from school or work.

The Net provides direct access. With the stuffiness removed from the classical experience, people can hear just how glorious Stravinsky really is.

This underscores a point I've been making for many years: Classical music is intrinsically as interesting as anything in our culture - and far more interesting than Desperate Housewives - but through ignorance and fear, it has become stigmatized as elitist.

Indeed, if these free downloads had been held up next to the pop charts that month, Beethoven would have made No. 1.

Of course, the record labels grumbled, having approved the BBC concept beforehand but later expressing vague regret that it attained such phenomenal success.

All some of these bloodless executives can think of is lost sales, of "stolen revenues," of people who heard Beethoven for free when they should have been paying through the nose for him. (These are the same companies who 25 years ago promised us that the price of a CD would eventually go from $15 to half that. And we believed them!)

Don't they realize this is a cheap and easy way to revitalize a product that years of neglect, mismanagement and unimaginative marketing have severely imperiled?

I'm not advocating illegal downloads, of course. But I am thinking that everybody concerned with classical music's future had better get Net-savvy, and I mean now.

If we're going to feed kids' natural curiosity about all kinds of music, we'd better be coming up with some powerful alternatives posthaste.

Sun classical music critic Tim Smith is on vacation.

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