Behind the scenes at the Tanglewood Music Festival

Forget those online deliveries of groceries. The big news for music-lovers during the coronavirus lockdown has been the sudden, and unforeseen, windfall of concerts and operas streamed directly into the home, most of them for free.

This has been such a lifeline for people bereft of their usual social and cultural life that it seems cruel to tell them it cannot go on. But stop it must: orchestras and opera companies need to start bringing in some income and few of the musicians involved, often freelance, are earning a penny at the moment.

The crunch point has arrived. As bank reserves dwindle, the biggest and bravest musical organisations are moving to a commercial model. It was nice soliciting donations from loyal supporters, and occasionally it brought in serious money, but now they are after a reliable source of hard cash.

It is no coincidence that the most prestigious organisations are leading the way. They already have available to them, or can create, the infrastructure to go online with scale, and their star names draw the biggest audiences.

A couple of musical institutions have been in this business long-term. The Berlin Philharmonic started its Digital Concert Hall back in 2008 to build on the international audience base it was already drawing live on tour. It offers online relays of about 40 concerts per season at €9.90 per week or €149 per year. A 30-day trial offer of free access during the lockdown saw 600,000 people watching over three million hours of concerts — and the challenge is to hang on to as many of those as possible now that charging has recommenced.

The other frontrunner is the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The Met pioneered live cinema relays and offers subscription packages to its unrivalled archive of audio and video opera recordings. Now it is venturing into pay-per-view online concerts.

“Met Stars Live in Concert”, a series of 12 top international singers in recital, kicked off two weeks ago. At $20 per concert, it is priced at less than a ticket to a live event, although its offering of operatic arias with piano accompaniment probably militates against a higher price.

The idea is catching on. This weekend sees the launch of “Live from London”, a series of 10 weekly concerts by top British (and one American) choirs, including I Fagiolini, Stile Antico and The Sixteen. The online festival is being run as a kind of co-operative, sharing income among the participating choirs. Tickets can be purchased individually, or at £80 for the series.

The Voces8 Foundation, which is running the festival, has set a break-even point of 2,000 season tickets, at which point the artists will have made a good concert fee. One week ago it was already looking likely the target would be hit.

The disruption caused by the pandemic has resulted in a number of one-off initiatives such as these. More important in the long run is the spur it has given to existing festivals and concert-halls to reappraise what they offer from the top down.

The Tanglewood Music Festival, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is leading the way in the US. Faced with the loss of this year’s entire festival, the management took the ambitious decision to reinvent it as Tanglewood Online (to August 23), a “summer tradition transformed” — a full-scale festival programme which, crucially, is charging for its new material, including chamber music and celebrity recitals.

“We build a Tanglewood season over two to three years,” says Mark Volpe, the Boston Symphony’s longstanding president and chief executive.

“The pandemic destroyed it in 10 days. There was an urgent need to stay connected and, while our core competency remains the live concerts, we are serving the audience relationship through our digital content. I told the trustees there was an element of experimentation, because we could not predict audience numbers as we can for a normal Tanglewood festival.”

Three weeks into the season Volpe was able to report that two-thirds of views were for the paid events, one-third for the free archive recordings. The average person buys three events or more, differently priced according to the series, and there has been a good take-up of subscriptions for the complete season.

“It is premature to declare victory,” says Volpe, “but we are reaching more people than we have ever reached before. I foresee an interesting process going forwards, including in terms of rights management, as there has been some flexibility on copyright during the pandemic. We are seeing an acceleration of what was already going on. The sports world operates with a blend of media and live audience, and music will not go back to how it was without any social media or television relays.”

Will Tanglewood 2021 all be online? “We shall see.”

The direction of travel is the same at London’s Wigmore Hall. It is only the size of the challenge that is different, as this is not a seasonal festival but a year-round venue. In June, frustrated that artists were not being paid, John Gilhooly, director of Wigmore Hall, launched a series of 20 live lunchtime recitals online, also broadcast on BBC Radio, with a gentle request for donations. Not everybody gave, but the money raised never fell below £2,000 per event and the highest receipts balanced out the lowest.

“The main aim was to get musicians working again,” says Gilhooly. “But it opened our eyes to the potential for worldwide audiences. This could be a big gain for us, as it is clear many people previously thought chamber music was too elitist for them. We were able to profile those viewing in different territories and even different age groups. Under-35s especially have been engaging with us through new media — Instagram, Periscope — and telling us what they think. How do we take these audiences with us in the future?”

For the next online series in September/October, Wigmore Hall will
recommend a donation of £5, but it will still be voluntary.

The upfront cost will be £200,000 and artists will be paid their usual fee. If the hall is still unable to open fully in the new year, a further series of online recitals in January/February may move to charged streaming.

“There could be a workable financial model where the hall can only have a 20 per cent socially distanced audience but the webcast makes up the income,” says Gilhooly. “We have tried webcasting for six years or more, but none of it was profitable. In June, by contrast, people were sitting at home, unable to go out, and viewing figures were high. It was morale boosting, a communal moment for the industry and its audiences.”

Many questions remain. Will audience fatigue set in? What of the smaller concert halls and festivals that do not have the pulling power of the Met or Wigmore Hall? Will a small band of elite international organisations pull away from the rest, leaving the local and provincial to struggle for survival?

The answers may be a long time coming, but one thing is already clear: music online is here to stay.

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