It surprised me a little that the demise of UMG’s entry-level platform to Classical Music – SINFINI – caused hardly a ripple when it was announced in December 2015 its activities would be wound down.
In fact so little a ripple was created, I missed the announcement altogether.
When Sinfini launched in 2012; created by outgoing UMG Chairman and Chief Executive Max Hole, I was highly critical of the entire enterprise being in agreement with music critic Igor Toronyi-Lalic’s view of Sinfini’s “ingratiating tweeness”. I have since changed my mind.
The Classical Music business is a very poor business indeed. It suffers unheralded ignominies by its gatekeepers – the few remaining multinational record companies – because of its inability to make them vast revenues quickly. Classical music product is extremely expensive to make (I know!); takes months or even years to plan and execute, only to be ever so quickly consigned to the 50% off ‘Sale’ bin ( if you remember when there were actual record stores?)
If there are real heroes in this ugly business, it is the niche, independent boutique record companies that are keeping the patient alive (if only barely). But, the unpalatable truth is that the record companies simply don’t care because of the sheer size of their legacy and back catalog of classical music already recorded able to be repackaged and re-issued, ad infinitum, in any applicable technical format of the day.
What has this to do with Sinfini?
Sinfini, over its short three or so years of life, evolved to become exactly what its stated purpose was: to be an “editorially independent platform providing a ‘jargon-free’ guide to classical music.” I believe, however, this mission statement ultimately does Sinfini a disservice. In my estimation, Sinfini became a subtle, entertaining, and highly engaging platform for people new to Classical Music to discover the layers of complexity and wonder of ‘classical’ music through an adept and exploratory approach to the genre. In this respect it is far more successful and cogent than, for example, MUSAIC, a not entirely dissimilar platform curated by the New World Symphony in the U.S.
Sinfini might eventually have evolved as a flagship in new ways of exploring the genre of classical music and meaningfully contributed to an increase in the base-line critical number of buyers required to purposefully engage record company interest. Ah, the acrid smell of lost future money! Sinfini needed to be stewarded by UMG for a decade or more to gain the necessary traction in terms of the ‘numbers game’. Apparently, the platform will now “…power the launch of the English language element of Deutsche Grammophon’s comprehensive site. Sinfini’s unique content will amplify and enhance the online presence of this already iconic label.” Ah, the sordid smell of marketing departments cannabilising other people’s efforts to substantiate their very existence. If nothing else I am reminded by this verbal diahorrea, that only ‘English’ people need educating by DG.
The deeply considered educational approach to learning facilitated by Sinfini is not to be underestimated. It’s stories were intrinsically learner-centred and plausibly interactive in design. Not reliant upon re-inventing the wheel of pseudo program notes – as is the case with the new, but intrinsically disappointing concert ‘companion’ Octava App. – Sinfini used approaches of creating or commissioning animations, documentaries, filmed interviews and created guides (the least imaginative of the approaches used). And, they are (or is it were?) very, very good indeed.
The premature closure of Sinfini is encapsulated in this anecdote: in November 2014 (not the 2010 podcast interview) author and music journalist, Norman Lebrecht, interviewed Maestro Riccardo Chailly (Music Director Designate of La Scala) for Sinfini as a 30-minute video-film. This interview is an education in itself. Partly this has to do with Lebrecht’s insightful questions (and knowledge) and Chailly’s direct and ungilded responses. Covering a very wide range of topics: the maestro’s reflections on everything ranging from the importance and legacy of conductors including, Seiji Ozawa, Claudio Abbado; the Italian conducting pedagogue, Franco Ferrara, and from there to understanding the genesis of the ‘long line in the romantic repertoire” from Bach through Mahler – and even to Puccini’s ‘Trittico’ operas – is utterly compelling.
But with Sinfini’s demise, the nearly 30-minute interview can no longer be accessed. This decision alone seems nothing short of incredulous.
Sinfini showed a way forward. It did it whilst carefully keeping us at arms-length from its Wizard of Oz-like backroom contraption of levers in respect to its design taxonomy. Moreover, in an age of Internet web design becoming ever more sophisticated with new parallax scrolling designs being the ‘new black’ (notwithstanding the impenetrable user HTML coding it requires to work successfully) Sinfini’s website was brilliantly conceived in terms of its cross-referencing navigation and minimum click navigation. It’s not easy to implement an interface design like this, let alone one that simultaneously accomplishes transparent online learning and experiential interaction.
Where does this now leave us?
Although another platform like Sinfini has yet to emerge, the world is fortunately neither short of creative entrepreneurs nor people who are clearly passionate about Classical Music education. An example of this is a new music App. called Oiid. Essentially, Oiid lets you break music down into separate tracks, instruments or layers, and then remix them as preferred. It’s classical music catalogue of recorded pieces (of which there are only three at present) additionally offer score view, conductor view, sectional views and the ability to increase or decrease tempi. In itself, this approach is not unique as large-scale installations offering the same type of interaction has existed for several years pioneered by several of the London orchestras at various junctures, but this is the first time I have seen it available on a mobile OS platform.
As for the major record companies showing some mettle and getting onboard with the technology revolution in classical music, one can only ponder the paucity of their creative thinking. It is a remarkable given the fact that they make a prestigious product – they record large-scale orchestral works with large orchestras performing them – that they place such little value on the product. Imagine Rolex or Ferrari making a high-end watch or car respectively, and then saying, “Oh well, no-one will ever buy it, but it is expensive isn’t it”.
The lack of ability by record companies to design a strategy to position their high-end product into the larger consumer market against the tide of popular music drivel awash in the market (which, curiously enough, they also create and own) smacks of extraordinary corporate ennui if not verging on collective executive stupidity.
One ever wonders how Sinfini ever got the green light to be created in the first place? Well there was Max Hole, of course, which tells you a lot, but with ill-health he is sidelined (hopefully only for awhile).
Sinfini, I was a convert, and I will miss you.
More soon on the Australian Discovery Orchestra,