Beethoven (1.4m) beats Bono (20,000) in battle of the internet downloads
Music industry forced to take note as composer's complete symphonies outshine rock acts in online chart
Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent
Thursday July 21, 2005
Forget Coldplay and James Blunt. Forget even Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which, in the version performed at Live8 by Sir Paul McCartney and U2, has become the fastest online-selling song ever. Beethoven has routed the lot of them.
Final figures from the BBC show that the complete Beethoven symphonies on its website were downloaded 1.4m times, with individual works downloaded between 89,000 and 220,000 times. The works were each available for a week, in two tranches, in June.
Sgt Pepper could well end up as the best-selling online track of all time. But its sales figure of just 20,000 online in the two weeks since it has been available contrasts poorly with the admittedly free Beethoven symphonies. (Sgt Pepper cost 79p on the iTunes website.)
To put another perspective on the success of the Beethoven downloads, according to Matthew Cosgrove, director of Warner Classics, it would take a commercial CD recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies "upwards of five years" to sell as many downloads as were shifted from the BBC website in two weeks. The BBC has been stunned by the response - so much so that its director general, Mark Thompson, opened his annual report with Beethoven's inscription on the score of the Missa Solemnis: "From the heart ... May it go again to the heart!"
The classical music industry has also been shocked since the demand for the symphonies seems to defy gloomy predictions about the shrinking appetite for classical music.
Roger Wright, the controller of Radio 3, said it was "clear that people had been coming to Beethoven for the first time" through the Beethoven downloads. This was discernible from the fact that the symphonies nos 1 and 2 had a high take-up compared with no 3, the Eroica, a much more famous work.
But the corporation has yet to unpick more facts about where the downloaders came from and what their musical habits were, though anecdotal evidence suggests that there was an international reach. If nothing else, the figures suggest the extraordinary power of the BBC.
Mr Wright said the idea had started as "just a little extra add-on to draw attention to the fact that the BBC Philharmonic was performing their first complete Beethoven cycle for 30 years". The symphonies were taken from live performances in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, and introduced by a Radio 3 presenter.
But it had become clear that the downloads marked "an important moment, when you see how the world is changing". He said he had invited industry figures to discuss the implications of the figures.
Not everyone was so positive. Some from the recording industry expressed concerns that the BBC was setting itself up as unfair competition in the recording market.
Mr Cosgrove said: "I would be worried if the BBC repeated the experiment. We would take an extremely dim view if it happened repeatedly." But, he added: "It's caused quite a bit of controversy - but it has also provided us with an amazing piece of free market research. I don't think anyone had any idea in their wildest dreams that there would be this level of response. Yes, the downloads were free - but if charged at a commercial rate that would have been a huge amount of revenue."
In a speech to the British Phonographic Industry, the trade association for the recording industry, Mr Thompson tried to allay fears from the commercial sector.
The anxiety, he said, "boils down to two questions: is this the start of some new regular service from the BBC, in which, without warning and consultation, the public will be offered chunks of music free at the point of download which will inevitably distort the commercial market in music? And second, are there any limits to what the BBC might download? Could we wake up one morning to discover that half the BBC's musical archive is available on the net? The answer to these two questions is: no and no. I understand where the anxiety is coming from: the music industry is already under assault from piracy of various kinds - and the last thing it needs is the BBC unintentionally opening up some kind of second front."
Radio 3 plans a similar week of broadcasts to its Beethoven Experience later in the year, devoted to Bach. But said Mr Thompson there would be more consultation to " understand the likely market impact".
Classical recording labels are lagging behind their pop counterparts in embracing the download service providers, according to Mr Cosgrove which have so far been tailored to working with tracks of a maximum of six or eight minutes, "which wouldn't work for Bruckner". But, he said, this was changing, and there was a "vertical learning curve".
According to Chaz Jenkins, the head of LSO Live, the recording company set up by the London Symphony Orchestra, "downloads are the future for classical music".
He said when the LSO's catalogue first became available on iTunes online sales outstripped those on the high street. "You can reach audiences who are intimidated by walking into a classical CD store, or who just can't get to one.
"Everyone talks about the early 1980s, when catalogues were re-recorded on CD and everyone replaced their LP collection, as the big boom in the classical recording industry. This could be just as big."
For Mr Jenkins, downloads of the LSO's recordings are not necessarily about building audiences for the orchestra's performances in the concert hall, but about giving the orchestra a reach and a life way beyond it. But Russell Jones, of the Association of British Orchestras, said: "We'd want to use it to try to drive people to the live performance. The buzz of this happening in the Bridgewater Hall can't be reproduced on a download."
Ludwig versus Macca
1 Symphony No 6 (Pastoral)
2 Symphony No 7
3 Symphony No 1
4 Symphony No 9 (Choral)
5 Symphony No 2
6 Symphony No 8
7 Symphony No 5
8 Symphony No 4
9 Symphony No 3 (Eroica)
The download chart
1 Paul McCartney and U2
2 James Blunt
4 Charlotte Church
5 Paul McCartney
The Long and Winding Road
6 Mariah Carey
We Belong Together
7 Audio Bullys/Nancy Sinatra
Shot You Down
Feel Good Inc
10 Kanye West
Diamonds from Sierra Leone
Classical chat 'A fantastic experiment'
From the Radio 4 Beethoven Experience messageboard
bliss 1st post
I LOVE the Beethoven week. My only regret is that I must sleep and therefore miss listening to the sublime music and excellent commentary.
Hope you will do the same for other composers.
dojjey 1st post
Thanks BBC for the downloads. I've just downloaded #6 and am listening as I write. It's nice to get a bit more from my licence fee.
Rowley 1st post
Many congratulations on your brave experiment.The performances clearly have a common thread running through them of one conductor's interpretation which gives the cycle an impressive cohesion. I am delighted to say that each download has been fast and faultless here.
EKM Beukers 1st post
Thanks BBC for this superb initiative. I heard a little bit late about this possibility, but succeeded in downloading 7, 8 + 9; many thanks and I hope you will continue actions like this one.
As a keen internet user, but not normally a classical music listener, I wanted to praise the BBC for making these excellent recordings of Beethoven's symphonies available. I have downloaded the first five and am gently listening through them and really enjoying a new style of music - a welcome change from my normal listening of Radio 1. Thank you BBC!
This is a fantastic experiment in the democratisation of high culture, and shows exactly what direction BBC radio should take. If all of BBC radio's range of live concerts/sessions/DJ sets were available in this way, it would lead to the creation of a national "archive" in homes across the country.
Congratulations to Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic for their excellent performances, and hopefully for being the forerunners to the BBC's emergence as the world's premier digital service.