by Thomas Baker

In the Stream: Orchestra fans turn to the Web to listen, if not to buy.

Two years after the Internet boom turned into a bit of a bust, there's some surprising and little-noticed good news about online classical-music listening habits: Arbitron's ratings of the most-listened-to Internet broadcast streams consistently rank classical webcasts as the dominant genre. For example, in January, three of the top ten online radio stations were classical, and www.wqxr.com, the industry leader offered by New York City's commercial classical FM station, had nearly 100,000 unique online listeners.

It should be noted that WQXR.com content is offered free to listeners who log on. On the other hand, companies looking for actual revenue from online classical music streams, through pay-for-play or subscription models, have either gone under or are still very much in a startup mode. Some once-high-profile ventures like the London-based Global Music Network (www.gmn.com) have ceased producing new content, while other subscription-based online music services, such as Andante.com, are not disclosing their (reportedly low) initial paid-subscriber numbers.

Which report offers a true picture of Internet classical music? Alas, they both do. Whether you believe it or not, your audience is on the Internet in significant numbers, ready to listen--but at the moment, they haven't found much reason to pay for the things they find there. So, for an orchestra, is putting music on the Web a great idea, or simply a costly giveaway? If you are still thinking that the kind of people who listen to classical music aren't "wired" or willing to use the Internet to pursue their interests, those days (if they ever existed) are officially over. More than 20 percent of Americans now have broadband, high-speed Internet connections at home--and classical listeners, according to Scarborough Research, are nearly half again as likely to have them. In addition, home-computer networking and wireless technology are making significant inroads. And once music can move more easily from that computer in the basement office to the kitchen or to your "real" music system, the old excuse--"Why would I listen to music on a PC?"--will be history. Already more than a third of all Americans report they've listened to music on the Web--and the demographic analysis confirms that these days, it's not just kids who are tuning in. Arbitron reports that more than 40 percent of regular online listeners are over the age of 35.

Listeners have already shown a willingness to spend significant amounts of money on classical music online: More than a third of all classical CDs sold in the U.S.--an estimated $100 million worth annually--are now purchased on the Web. The sales are driven in part by necessity. With the number of retail stores and terrestrial radio stations dedicated to classical music dwindling, the Web is practically the only place left for anyone who's interested to find classical music.

But will they make the effort to find it? And if they do, how does it help the online business or orchestra that's offering the music?

Strictly Business

Even as many higher-profile classical music ventures seem wobbly or have faded out entirely, one entrant is still quietly assembling a critical mass of classical content: Rhapsody, a digital music service offered by San Francisco-based Listen.com (www.listen.com). While not an exclusively classical service, Rhapsody claims to offer the largest online library of classical recordings anywhere, including nearly the entire Naxos catalog of some 2,000 CDs' worth of music. Gradually, Rhapsody is also adding backlist classical content from the traditional major-label groups, including BMG and EMI. For about $10 a month, subscribers get to listen as much as they want, and they have access to Rhapsody's large pop and rock catalog as well.

"Classical listeners are completely underserved by conventional media," says Sean Ryan, CEO of Listen.com. "It's the perfect segment to go digital." Ryan notes that while classical music accounts for a relatively small portion of his overall traffic, those customers are his most demanding in terms of quality--and also the most loyal when it comes time to pay up. Like most music startups, Listen.com won't disclose its subscriber figures, but Ryan does note that Rhapsody plans a significant investment this year in its classical search technology, a sign that, unlike the major record labels, Rhapsody sees long-term opportunity in the category. (At this writing, Mozart was eighth on Rhapsody's Top Ten Artists list, just behind the Dixie Chicks.)

Still, Listen.com, like the other pay-for-play services out there, isn't yet a bonanza for the orchestras or record labels included in the playlist. It pays labels a small royalty every time one of their tracks gets played--but the numbers aren't yet large enough to make that a significant payment. As for orchestras, "Medium- to long-term, digital is going to be a significant boon for orchestras, first in a PR sense, later by generating some money," advises Ryan. "After all, don't you want your music available to anyone with a broadband connection, with a royalty from anyone who listens to it?"

At exclusively classical Andante.com, a recent management shakeup has reportedly introduced a new, more frugal marketing phase, after the service's splashy, heavily advertised launch. But there is interest in adding more content to the site's music room, and Andante.com still has fans. "They remain the best thing in the marketplace right now," says Joseph H. Kluger, president of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which offers dozens of its current and archival performances for streaming to the site's paid subscribers. "The real barrier that has to be overcome with all these businesses is getting music off the computer into the living room, or even better, into the car," he adds, alluding to future wireless or Internet technologies. "Once that happens, orchestras will regret not having been there to participate at the beginning."

For the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, the reason to go online is clear: promotion. "We want young people," says Marc Mostovoy, the 30-member orchestra's founder and music director. "This is where they're accustomed now to listen to music." Few orchestras have put as much music online as Mostovoy's. The Chamber Orchestra (www.concertosoloists.org) offers several dozen complete performances for free download, drawn from live concerts, originally recorded by the orchestra's own team and also broadcast on the local public radio station. Encouraged by an Internet-savvy board member who also helped finance the initial streaming setup nearly four years ago, the orchestra offers performances of some 50 works, ranging from Handel's Water Music to a Gossec rarity to contemporary pieces. Each includes a professionally voiced spoken intro, so that no matter where the audio file travels, the orchestra gets a plug.

The Chamber Orchestra (formerly known as the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia) counts several thousand downloads of these performances a month, and it has also collected nearly a thousand e-mail addresses from site visitors. With ongoing bandwidth costs of several hundred dollars a month, has it paid off as a marketing investment compared to, say, spending the same money on direct mail? "You simply can't compare them," says Marketing Director Eric Haecker. "Once that brochure is in the mail, it's gone, and thrown out. With this investment, once the music is up, anyone can see it at any time. You get a scaling factor that you can't possibly get with direct mail."

Very few orchestras have taken the perceived risk Mostovoy's group has and put music up on their own sites as MP3 files for listeners to freely download, copy to a personal player, or share with anyone else. Wasn't there some internal concern about the rights issues? "Everyone knows we're not making any money on this," Mostovoy responds. "We simply don't want to be playing to an empty hall. [Our musicians] know that this online presence is only going to help people figure us out." The musicians consider the program, which produces no revenue, as a promotional activity for which they don't seek additional income. While acknowledging that their site needs more marketing dollars behind it to generate even more traffic, Mostovoy says that's no reason to wait: "In our situation, we simply have to do it."

Necessary, Not Magical

At the much larger, media-savvy San Francisco Symphony, there's just as much recognition that putting music online is absolutely necessary--but an even greater sense that putting all the music in the world on a web site won't work magic without an overall audience-building strategy.

"It's never going to be the main event," says John Kieser, the orchestra's director of operations and electronic media. "People are not going to rush home and eat dinner so they can watch a webcast. The Web is where people go to explore something they heard about somewhere else."

The issue isn't whether people will seek out and listen to music online. At the San Francisco Symphony's site, www.sfsymphony.org, they already do. Nearly one out of five site visitors listens to one or more of the one-minute orchestral excerpts that are scattered everywhere, such as next to program listings and in an extensive educational resource area. Kieser believes the sound clips help sell tickets and bring site visitors back.

How do you get someone looking for that music in the first place? Probably through something that reaches people in the old-fashioned, off-line world. As an example, Kieser points to plans for the SFS's extensive American Mavericks web site (www.americanmavericks.org), with nearly four dozen complete orchestra performances of music by out-of-the-mainstream composers available for streaming. Most site visitors, Kieser feels, will look for the site after they've been exposed to the American Mavericks concept through a companion television program and book project. The web site and its music alone, goes the thinking, wouldn't attract new listeners to the orchestra; but in combination with the "reach" vehicles of print and broadcast, it gives those new listeners a depth they would never get from the other places the orchestra's work appears. "It's a completely necessary leg of the stool," Kieser says. "But first you've got to push them to the site somehow to make it worthwhile."

Overall, classical music on the Web, like the Web itself, remains too new to draw firm conclusions. Even the initial success of classical radio streams may be only temporary, as royalty payments (see "An Online Primer," page 10) have already knocked such industry stalwarts as Chicago's WFMT off the Web entirely. But in the classical music world, as with many other old-line media businesses that have struggled with the Web successfully, there are a few words of wisdom that may help form more realistic expectations and avoid disappointment in efforts to move music online.

Get noticed. Generally speaking, people don't come to orchestra web sites looking for music. They visit to check out concert programs and schedules or to purchase tickets. Acknowledge up front that you'll need a strategy to help people learn that you have music available, whether it's through traditional PR and advertising channels, search-engine listings, or working with one of the music aggregators, webcasters, or retailers on the Web.

Offer depth.

Whether it's news, retailing, search engines, or music, the Web's most successful sites are usually the deepest. A few scattered sound files don't make a compelling offering. Consider providing a full range of recent performances--not just the occasional excerpt.

Look for a payoff.

You may not charge money for your content, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't expect some very quantifiable benefits from having music online. Ask listeners for e-mail addresses, demographic information, even donations to the orchestra--and compare the dollars you're investing in online music to the quality of the leads and sales you're getting in return.

At a time when just about every budget item at every orchestra is under scrutiny, is there a case to be made for investing even a few hundred dollars on Internet music--on letting the world hear what your orchestra sounds like? If your concern is selling tickets next week, perhaps not. But for any group with a longer-term view, the audience that is ready and waiting for classical music on the Web can't be ignored. "We spend too much time worrying about the concert hall," says San Francisco's Kieser. "There is a large audience out there that may become our donors and supporters who will never see that hall. And the Web is a part of reaching them."

Thomas Baker is a strategy consultant for media and Internet companies as well as arts organizations, and for seven years was general manager of The Wall Street Journal Online. He has been working with the Electronic Media Forum on ConcertWorks (www.concertworks.org).