As Chennai prepares for its first virtual Season, there’s a lot the music establishment can learn from Berlin’s Digital Concert Hall
Since 1927, when the Chennai Music Season started, it has never been interrupted. Until this December. The concert halls that even wars and catastrophes couldn’t shut down will not open to music lovers due to the pandemic. The tradition of music, however, will continue. The Madras Music Academy and a few sabhas have announced that they will go digital, while the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan has announced an open-air concert.
With no concerts since April, musicians have been deprived of their livelihood for eight months now. A number of them are in distress, both financial and psychosocial, and the situation is unlikely to change for some months to come.
Digital is no longer an alternative, but a new performance and revenue paradigm. One that the Carnatic music establishment should have embraced much earlier, like elsewhere in the world. Had this stream existed, musicians could have continued to seamlessly perform and earn. In the absence of a formal system to monetise their art, all musicians could do was churn out technically low-quality free content on the web. Had an all-weather digital space existed, their market might already have expanded, attracting cross-over audiences and more earnings. Now that the step has finally been taken, is the establishment willing to bet big? Or is it just a stop-gap arrangement to tide over Covid-19?
The Digital Concert Hall of the 132-year-old Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, still synonymous with legends such as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert Von Karajan, is a great example of what a digital alternative can do for classical music. Even as the concerts of Berlin Philharmoniker, always sold out in the 2,400-seat hall, were shut down, the music — both live and archived — reached thousands of audiences across the world through computer, TV, mobile devices and even cinemas.
The 3 Es
As soon as the hall was shut, the Digital Concert Hall, which has been in operation since 2008, started a virtual orchestra festival, offering four free broadcasts of archival highlights, film clips, artiste interviews, and chamber music performed in the empty concert hall. More than 90,000 viewers watched. In addition, the Digital Hall gave free concerts for international audiences for one month, attracting 7,00,000 new viewers. Some 12 digital concerts have been held since the Covid-19 outbreak.
What makes the Digital Concert Hall such a cutting-edge experience is firstly, its technology for live-streaming — shot in 4K with seven cameras. For the 2020-21 season, the hall plans a multi-channel, surround audio (Mpeg-H and Dolby Atmos) system. It also has an intuitive interface; a huge archive of 600 concerts that go back several decades; and documentaries, interviews, and short clips. In fact, some viewers find the digital concerts more immersive because of the multiple camera angles and proximity to musicians. In digital, there’s no differential pricing — everybody gets a ringside seat. Nor is there any variable pricing depending on the popularity of musicians or conductors. The whole experience is much cheaper.
As Chennai prepares for its first digital season, there’s a lot the city’s music establishment can learn from Berlin’s Digital Concert Hall. In this exclusive interview, Olaf Maninger, principal cello and managing director, Berlin Phil Media, speaks on a number of issues that are relevant to the economics, the experience, and the expansion of Carnatic music.
The Berlin Philharmonic has been streaming live and archived music during the Covid-19 pandemic
How did the Digital Concert Hall begin and how has it evolved over the years?
Prior to the Digital Concert Hall, international fans had very limited opportunity to stay truly connected to the orchestra — concert tickets for tours were quickly sold out and recordings only reflected a fraction of the orchestra’s musical activities. Then, during one of our tours to Asia, we were struck by how thousands of fans ended up watching the concerts outside on big screens. We wanted to forge a deeper connection with these fans and were keen to stay in touch with them. This is how we came up with the idea of the Digital Concert Hall. Connection to our worldwide audience was and is at the centre of the Digital Concert Hall. It started with the 2008-09 season.
The Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall
How many viewers does the Digital Concert Hall have? How many concerts are in your archive? How many are free?
We have 40,000 registered users. Our current total number of concerts is 636. All education concerts, all interviews, and usually one concert is free.
Can ticket buyers for physical concerts get a discounted/ free ticket to the digital version for viewing later?
Not at the moment, although this is something that we would like to do.
How many concerts have been cancelled due to the pandemic? Under normal conditions, what’s the average attendance for a concert?
All concerts of the orchestra since March 12, the end of season 19/20, were cancelled in the way they were planned. Nineteen of 82 concerts of the orchestra had to be cancelled. Regarding the attendance, the main auditorium fits 2,400 people and the chamber music hall 1,200.
Instead of cancelling concerts, have you made them digital?
When the Philharmonie Berlin (the main auditorium) was closed down, an online format was created. The Berlin Phil Series was presented every Saturday at 7 p.m. Curated and presented by musicians of the Berliner Philharmoniker, they offered a blend of a live chamber concert and archival recordings of orchestral works, all connected by a special theme, such as music from France, America or Vienna. We send invites to fans of the Berliner Philharmoniker worldwide to become part of our online family and through these concerts we now offer them a shared experience.
What has been the financial impact of the pandemic?
We expect a loss of around 10 million euros for the fiscal year 2020 due to concert and tour cancellations. The musicians are employees of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation and, therefore, received their salary. From April to August, the orchestra was on paid furlough.
Has there been an increase in the number of young viewers?
When the pandemic first started to affect public life, we opened the Digital Concert Hall by sharing a free 30-day ticket. At this time, 600,000 people watched more than 3 m hours of concerts. Some decided to stay on. Since we don’t collect demographic data on our audience, we can’t answer the question on the younger audience.
Since musical experience is co-created, how have the musicians coped with empty halls and no audience to feed off from?
Of course, playing in an empty hall is only half the experience of music-making. The musicians are, therefore, very happy that since the beginning of this season there has been a steady increase in the number of people admitted into the hall. Since the beginning of this season, the Philharmonie Berlin has been open for limited audiences.
Do you get viewers from countries such as India where Western classical music has a limited audience?
Our audience represents mainly Europe, America and Japan, but our outreach is worldwide, including countries such as India. We are grateful that we have had a loyal online audience even before Covid-19.
The writer is a journalist-turned-UN official-turned-columnist based in Travancore.