Virtual Orchestras: A Growing Role for Major Music Companies

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There is a lot of cutting edge experimentation with online presentation by Australia’s orchestras and Musica Viva.

I was giving a lecture to arts management postgraduate students in which we discussed Baumol’s effect — the fact that despite wage increases there are few productivity efficiencies that can be gained in an orchestra as we require the same number of musicians now to play a symphonic piece as we did centuries ago. So where do you find efficiencies if you are to survive in a time of static government funding?

We then discussed whether digital technology could provide solutions. While we can easily download classical music onto our smartphones will it be possible in the future, for example, to have digital musicians within an orchestra? What about the notion of the virtual orchestra for remote areas where it is prohibitively expensive to tour? Do musicians all need to be in the same concert hall to perform a piece?

A few years ago I would have thought that much of this was far-fetched but, given the increasing use of digital technologies and the whole hearted embrace of it by many musicians, it is not surprising that music companies are pushing the boundaries. And it’s not just the small ensembles. Symphony and chamber orchestras around Australia are now involved in the digital arena and there is real excitement about what is happening. This is only partly driven by government policies. For the most part it is directed by the desire of the companies to remain relevant in an increasingly global and competitive world. It is about ongoing sustainability.

The most isolated orchestra in the world, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO), embraced the digital age in 2008 by providing ‘live’ concerts via internet streaming. This is supported by one of their corporate sponsors, the internet service provider iiNet. An audience member in the Pilbara can watch the actual performance in real time or, if they are rostered to work at that time, view it in subsequent days or months by logging onto the WASO website. The remote audience is welcomed by the artistic program manager who introduces the program and also conducts interviews at interval with the conductor, composer or orchestra manager. The internet viewers see close ups of the musicians and conductor as well as the real audience enjoying the sublime music. In the future each webcast will be divided into chapters so that viewers can go directly to their favoured piece of music and customise their concert experience.

The impetus behind doing this came from the Principal Conductor, Paul Daniel, who saw that WASO, as the state orchestra, faced enormous challenges in reaching people across a vast land mass. Webcasting was a logical way for the company to provide greater access to the art form. The success of this approach is revealed in the statistics: internet view rates range from 6,000 to 8,000 within a few months of the actual performance, plus there is audience interaction and feedback to the concerts through a Twitter tag established for each streamed concert. A concert in July 2011 with jazz performer James Morrison had tweets fed onto the screen. The concert was also streamed live to a huge screen in inner-city Northbridge. WASO had the highest tweet activity of any Twitter tag that night. All this is part of building grass-roots support for the orchestra — an essential goal at the political level.

There is no doubt that the classic paradigm for an orchestra is being turned on its head. Orchestral music is on the move. This year Sydney Symphony started streaming concerts to iPhones, and the approach was soon adopted by other orchestras. For Sydney Symphony this was a logical extension of previous work in streaming concerts and it also assisted in building a stronger relationship with their sponsor, Telstra BigPond.

This last benefit is important as corporate sponsorship remains an important revenue stream to all major orchestras and music companies around the country, particularly in an environment of fixed funding which does not keep up with rising costs. Sponsors are increasingly interested in new and innovative opportunities and if they are not provided they look elsewhere. The Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) annual study on corporate sponsorship and philanthropy [1] found a slight decline in 2010 — to $11 million — in sponsorship income for the nine orchestra and music members. Nonetheless, sponsorship still averages seven per cent of music members’ turnover, with philanthropy adding another six per cent. Donors are also interested in supporting companies that reach out.

A different slant on using digital technology is Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s iPhone/iPad application, MSO Learn, which was launched in June 2011 and offers an interactive audio-visual exploration of the orchestra and musicians. It’s been very popular — achieving more than 10,000 downloads in its first month and being featured in the iTunes stores of more than 50 countries including Argentina, Slovakia, Pakistan, Poland and even Madagascar. The orchestra has also offered its supporters an insight into the life of an orchestra by involving its musicians in creating and sharing social media content on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

An immersive, interactive audio-visual orchestral installation is being developed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO). Audience members will be able to walk into a room or a tent and find themselves in the centre of a beautiful Bach performance by thirteen 3D musicians, with the sound of each musician coming from the direction of their projection.

What makes this experience most powerful is the control the audience can have over the experience. An audience member holds a remote control allowing them to turn the sound of each musician on and off. This gives viewers insight into how music is constructed. It is supported by the music score streaming on screen and an augmented reality mobile application giving information about the music, musicians and instruments. And if you play an instrument, sing or dance you can also perform with the ACO in the installation, film yourself and submit it to a YouTube competition channel.

ACO General Manager Tim Calnin sees the real power of this innovation on two fronts. The first is staying connected with the large number of regional communities they cannot visit every year. In the future he hopes to introduce three-year planning cycles mixing visits from the live and virtual orchestras.

Tim also thinks that regional centres will benefit from the educational value. ‘Imagine being a 13-year-old violinist in Broken Hill learning the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and being able to watch Richard Tognetti’s hand movements up close … and then being able to turn Richard off and you play the movement with the rest of the orchestra.’

All this digital work and streaming is great practice for the ‘big event’ — the coming of the National Broadband Network (NBN). Federal Arts Minister Simon Crean is extremely enthusiastic. He sees the NBN as a ‘game changer for Australian regional communities’ and wants to see new and emerging technologies used to develop fresh new talent. He believes that the NBN will help increase the potential audience of artists and performers in Australia and improve arts education outcomes.

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (TSO) has taken this to heart and embarked on a ground-breaking project, in collaboration with the Australian Academic Research Network (AARNet), to deliver low-latency, high-level audio duplex concerts live to school students in regional Australia through the NBN. This is not your everyday streamed concert but the type whose sophistication gets technology geeks highly excited.

Tasmania has the first rollout of the NBN so it makes sense to pursue this. More importantly however is that, despite the orchestra’s ‘state treasure’ status, the economics of keeping a symphony orchestra viable in the context of a small population base is always going to be difficult. About four years ago, recognising that the classical CD market for which it was world renowned was slowly dying, the TSO embarked on a multi-pronged digital strategy. Like other orchestras around the country the TSO implemented social media marketing initiatives and advanced digital ticketing and customer relationship systems to better service and reach customers. What it is attempting to do with the NBN though is most challenging.

There are quality issues associated with streaming orchestral music on the internet. The music just doesn’t sound as good as it should and lags slightly behind the musicians’ movements, as does any commentary from the conductor or host. Many new devices such as iPads have trouble picking up the traditional streamed concert. The cause is partly lack of bandwidth which is what the NBN should be able to fix but it’s not straightforward. There are enormous technical challenges involved in maintaining very high production values in the audio-video media and ensuring minimal latencies, which are essential if you require ‘musical interaction’.

The TSO hopes that this project — affectionately known as CyberGig — will lead to school students around the country participating in superb-sounding, high-definition, interactive live concerts that are fun for the students as well as being educational. For teachers there is an added bonus of not needing to organise buses to concerts and chasing up elusive parental permission notes. TSO also sees opportunity to widen their conductor training programs using this technology — imagine a young conductor in a mainland town ‘practising’ with the orchestra in Hobart.

Musica Viva Australia, with 30 years’ experience in arts education, is likewise investing in digital technology. It is digitising samples of its music education materials to deliver world-leading music education resources for use in classrooms around Australia and, potentially, the rest of the world. These include interactive white board activities, video clips of song and dance routines, illustrative methods for teaching songs, and assessment rubrics.

With the implementation of the National Arts Curriculum just around the corner, Musica Viva is also developing a modular structure giving teachers the ability to plan and select resources appropriate to the age and stage of students. The modules will be designed around a particular piece of repertoire proven over the years to work well in a teaching context. Although Musica Viva uses around 700 pieces of music, with the digital teaching resources it will concentrate on those with existing copyright and intellectual property clearances to simplify and speed up the process. The first of the resources will be available online in 2012.

Like the TSO there is a sustainability imperative here. Sales of Musica Viva programs to schools had dropped off in recent years and a new approach was required. There is also a lack of qualified music teachers in schools around Australia and so it is important to equip generalist teachers with tools to make them feel confident in teaching music and in developing and fostering talent. The challenge for an orchestra or an organisation like Musica Viva is making the business model work and not eating into too much of the company’s reserves too quickly. High-definition content is very expensive. Producing a modest set of modules has been a significant investment for Musica Viva and was dependent on substantial one-off grants from the federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and the Rio Tinto Foundation. Further development is contingent on income but return on investment is not envisaged for at least five years.

Orchestra Victoria, which is probably better known for its pit services to Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet, is keen to exploit digital opportunities and sees its partnership with these two companies as a key. Both the opera and ballet companies have started recording live performances for cinema and television distribution and thus the orchestra is now seen overseas playing The Mikado or on SBS doing Romeo and Juliet with the Ballet.

Although recordings and broadcasts of orchestras, operas and ballets are not new, it is the digital quality, the distribution networks and the environments that are. Sitting in a comfortable cinema with surround sound, sipping on a glass of wine watching La Boheme is a far cry from Sunday afternoons in front of the TV at a specific time. If orchestras are to compete globally then their product must be first-rate in all departments, not just the music. The competition these days is with the Berlin Philharmonic and The Metropolitan Opera.

There is of course a cautionary side to all of this. Will the digital experience replace the live? There is also concern about seeing adoption of digital as the panacea to the woes of the arts industries. The recently released ‘Discussion Paper on the National Cultural Policy’ [2]gives particular emphasis to working in the digital medium perhaps to the detriment of the live performance. The paper does not mention art-form development although it is hoped that this is a given.

Orchestras and music companies see digital concerts as an enhancer to the live experience, never a replacement. In fact the logic behind the digital strategy in many companies is that it is an advanced marketing tool which needs to be fully costed. WASO, for example, allows its external production team additional time to rehearse the day before a concert is streamed and must factor this into their budget, yet it is not making any money out of the streamed concerts.

Except for a few companies, the digital embrace is not something that will directly improve the bottom line — rather a concert for an iPhone or computer, or even a cinema broadcast, is better viewed as one long advertisement for the orchestra. Managing Director of WASO Craig Whitehead argues that it is ‘all about connecting with your audience … it’s a different aural experience to being in a [live] concert’.

Craig notes that orchestral music is an ‘art form that people are scared about and this (virtual viewing) is safe’. As to whether it leads to more sales of tickets to live performances, this is yet to be tracked in Australia. Overseas studies, however, point to the fact that digital cinema broadcasts of theatre productions make people more inclined to buy a ticket to a live performance [3]and there have been anecdotal reports and tweets about people attending a live performance as a result of having seen streamed ones.

There is another possibly more interesting side to the use of digital technology — how it facilitates the development of the art form and how it can intersect with others. The TSO is working on a project with Hobart-based Terrapin Puppet Theatre to use the biometric data of the musicians to drive and control digital puppets and scenography. The production is being done in conjunction with Darwin Festival and Ten Days on the Island and has a working title of ‘’Shadow Dreams’’. It is a story of two young boys, one Aboriginal and one white. There will be simultaneous puppet performances in Darwin and Tasmania, fuelled by the musicians’ biometrics. There is also a planned orchestral synaesthesia project next year at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart. This is a perfect engagement strategy and a fitting partnership as MONA has achieved world status in its adoption of digital technology, plus it has an extremely high visitation rate. Moreover MONA is hip and cool — adjectives not usually associated with the ‘heritage arts’ as a previous Federal Arts Minister liked to describe orchestras.

Possibly one of the best things coming from all this digital enterprise is the enthusiasm of the musicians themselves. Although at first some treated it with trepidation, by all accounts there has since been a wholehearted adoption. Musicians are naturally good with technology and there is demonstrable pride in raising their company’s profile, generating greater access both nationally and internationally, staying in touch with old subscriber friends and ensuring there is better music education available. As to whether musicians would be as enthusiastic if the technology develops to the extent of replacing some players is another matter.

The focus will always be on the live experience — digital technology is another way to draw people in. As the enthusiastic Simon Crean has said: ‘The resonance of a symphony orchestra when you sit in amongst it, you know this is an experience that a lot of people don’t have’. [4]Hopefully digital technology will assist in changing this and at the same time improve the ongoing viability of orchestras and other music companies.


Author

Susan Donnelly. In Music Forum Vol. 18, No. 1, November 2011 . Entered on knowledge base 9 December 2012 with additional website references.

References

  1. Australian Major Performing Arts Group Tracking changes in corporate sponsorship and private donations 2010 July 2011
  2. National Cultural Policy Discussion Paper, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Office for the Arts 11 August 2011
  3. Bakshi, Hasan, Mateos-Garcia, Juan and Throsby, David, Beyond Live: Digital innovation in the performing arts, National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, February 2010
  4. Transcript of interview with Artsworks ABC Radio National 23 August 2011.
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