Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra: MSO Classics e-label

Growing with the times—how radio recordings took up a new home on the Internet

The History:

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's commitment to electronic media (i.e. recordings) has been a large part of its history. This commitment has been realized through a national radio broadcast series, which has been produced without interruption since 1976. Not only has the MSO produced over 400 concert broadcasts, but those broadcasts have been carried by an extraordinarily large list of radio stations, both commercial and non-commercial. With the advent of iTunes, the MSO's commitment to electronic media has been propelled even further.

Making it work today:

A national labor agreement between the American Federation of Musicians and many American orchestras has been in place since 2000. The agreement dealt with symphonic recordings distributed via streaming or downloading. However, many groups have found the logistics and details of royalties, payment, distribution, and contracts to be hurdles in starting e-distribution. To solve this problem, the MSO contract pays musicians, conductors, soloists, and publishers on a revenue-sharing basis rather than traditional advance payments. Ultimately, the MSO was able to utilize the benefits of this new labor agreement while reissuing their radio recordings over the Internet.

MSO's Results:

The recordings became available in October 2005 for sale over iTunes. Available recordings range in price from 99 cents for one movement to $4 for a complete work and $10.00 for an entire CD. iTunes is currently the largest on-line music store offering world-wide access to all types of music including the growing segment of classical repertoire. The MSO's iTunes catalog includes live recordings that were performed between 1970 and 2005. Among its inaugural set of 25 releases, MSO Classics offered the world premiere recording of a Milwaukee Symphony commission, Sinfonia No. 3, by composer Roberto Sierra, released just weeks after its debut performance. Additional titles include works by Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Dvorak, Mussorgsky, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Sibelius, Nielsen, Bruckner, and Wagner, with many more in the works. With minimal publicity, 864 tracks were sold in the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia during the first two months on-line.

Milwaukee is planning to open their own online store, which will facilitate music downloads of a much higher quality than ones available on commercial sites. The online store will also allow Milwaukee to set their own prices for pieces being released, a benefit that iTunes does not allow for, and capture customer data to help them learn more about their target audience and highlight ways to better reach them.

What the MSO has learned:

  • online music distributors exist and are a rising power in music sales;
  • music publishers and orchestras have a lot to learn about online music sales and can learn from mainstream music;
  • intellectual property rights law and labor law are very different.

For further information, contact:
Tracy Johnson: Director of Public Affairs, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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