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July 12, 2005
Classical Myopia and the BBC's Beethoven
As the BBC prepares to announce the tremendous success of its free Beethoven downloads, the Independent reports that classical labels are less than rhapsodic:
This week the BBC will announce there have been more than a million downloads of the symphonies during the month-long scheme. But the initiative has infuriated the bosses of leading classical record companies who argue the offer undermines the value of music and that any further offers would be unfair competition.
The BBC made all nine of the Beethoven symphonies available for free download, with commentary, as part of their Beethoven Experience.
You'd think that arts leaders struggling to expand their market to younger generations would welcome evidence that downloaders want to give classical a try. Any classical afficionado knows that one performance of Beethoven's Ninth isn't a direct substitute for another, just as baseball fans don't stop watching just because they've now seen the Red Sox win the Series. Instead, hearing and appreciating an intial performance is the first step toward wanting to hear the other greats, in concert or on CD. Those pop fans who realize Gianandrea Noseda's Pastorale fits on their iPods may well be moved to try more.
But instead of welcoming this new audience with offerings of their own, the labels complain that downloads are "devaluing the perceived value of music." They make the same error intellectual property maximalists do -- thinking that "exclusion" equals "value." If few people want to pay for your product, it doesn't have much market value, no matter how much you want to charge. The RIAA's 2003 Consumer Profile indicates just 3% of U.S. music purchases were classical, while BPI reports that in the U.K., classical CD sales totaled under 14 million for that year. Against that small market, a million downloads in two weeks is huge. Labels should focus not on the hypothetical hordes who might buy high-priced CDs, but on the real likelihood that free downloads introduce a wider audience of potential purchasers of a wide range of classical music.
I for one, hope the BBC extends this experiment. Listening to the BBC Symphony's Beethoven First now.
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