The Rise and Rise of Orchestra Recording Labels

WXQR_LogoIt’s well worth listening to this recent and informative podcast from the excellent WQXR 105.9 FM radio station in New York.  The three respondents to the interview questions from Naomi Lewin are respectively: Anastasia Tsioulcas, who covers classical music for NPR Music; Marc Geelhoed, who manages the Chicago Symphony house label CSO Resound, and Matt Whittier, the senior marketing manager at Naxos of America.  These are all intelligent classical music journalists and administrative executives whose answers to probing questions are erudite and informative.  Why then do I get this nagging feeling that they’ve all somehow missed the entire point of digital music services in respect to so-called ‘classical music’ and orchestras?

There’s an interesting car insurance advertisment (or is the word ‘commercial’ here?) I see regularly on the TV in NYC in which the ‘sell’ proposition is: if you pay, and pay on time, for comprehensive car insurance, why then does your premium go up if you have an accident, however slight and inconsequential? I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of the message. Interestingly, also, there is nothing clever about the ad. in terms of its creative direction (no special effects or celebrity endorsements) but it works so effectively because the message is presented as the unaffected gripe of an average person who has just been stopped to give an opinion directly to camera.  Brilliant.

So what’s the point here?

The sell for the product (the insurance company) is at the END of the 30 second commercial.  We know nothing about the insurance company until the last 5 seconds.  The reason I remember it, is because I have been sucked into the STORYTELLING of the ‘sell’ proposition (It’s also very good advertising copy writing – and that’s hard to do).  In other words, I’m already ‘in’ by the time I’m told to be interested. Or put another way, it’s about the theatrical setup – the ‘buy-in’ commonplace to theatre story exposition.  But here’s the real secret (and I was reminded of this again yesterday in a long conversation with a brilliant American playwright) – the ‘buy-in’ at the start of the ‘sell’ comes from the ‘sell’ proposition starting half-way though the action.  YEP, READ IT AGAIN!  It’s the big take-away from this piece.

And this is where classical orchestras or any Arts organisation involved in selling digital experience product into the market for brand building or product traction has been blind-sided (apropos, “Hello MET HD broadcasts – and good luck with your negotiations Mr. Gelb, I actually feel for you”).  The product is the end experience – and I don’t mean the simple and naive notion that you can achieve bonus boost CD hard artefact sales off the backend of the concert experience; really, you want to sell the product to the converted?  This is your end-game strategy? – no, I mean the product (your orchestra and its services in toto) are the end experience of the ‘sell’ proposition that something visceral and not-to-be-missed is already happening and can be accessed at any time – like a telenovela if you like that analogy – but to do that you have to UNDERSTAND DIGITAL STORYTELLING at its core and how it is done.  There are increasingly good examples popping up (it is, admittedly, like watching throwing mud at the wall at the moment and see what sticks) but not one single orchestra that I have seen actually has got close to it (with the exception of SFSO who mistakenly think it is about ‘broadcast’).  Actually the closest I have seen to a deep, immersed undertanding of this comes from The Royal National Theatre (NT) in London, but they’re not in the classical music business, obviously.

So, here’s the thing:  listen, I love CSO Resound, and God knows the NAXOS music library et al is the best thing since sliced bread; and the genetlemen in the podcast, given their roles, particularly had the courage to put their heads up above the parapet to offer an opinion and insight – and they only answered the questions put to them: a far remove from their individual and collective knowledge no doubt – but we’re not making any real inroads into making classical music the Breaking Bad experience of live performance that it could easily be in the second decade of the 21st. Century.

Come on folks, let’s really get to the starting line of true innovation practice for orchestral and opera business in the USA.  Maybe try Doblin theory as a starting point to focus down on the problem?

More soon and take care,



Quill & Quaver Associates LLC 

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