Roll on, Beethoven

When BBC Radio 3 offered listeners free downloads of symphonies, more than a million jumped at the chance. It's just the start of classical music on the iPod, says Sarah Shannon

A few months ago, BBC Radio 3 executives devised a plan to devote a whole week of their schedules to nothing but Beethoven's works. Alongside this , they decided to offer listeners the chance to download his symphonies from the Radio 3 website on to their computers or digital audio players(iPods and the like). The response left them reeling. the total number of downloads for all nine Beethoven symphonies was 1,369,893.

If free downloads were eligible for the pop album charts, Beethoven would easily have made No 1. Indeed, the BBC symphonies would have also held all the top places in the classical album chart. The commercial download sites iTunes and Napster began to link up to the Beeb's output, to capitalise on the popularity. And some record labels began to complain about the phenomenon. Heaven forbid that the public should start expecting to get their classical music for free.

Those with more open minds saw this as an exciting opportunity. Classical-music listeners could no longer be dismissed as technophobes. The number of downloads showed that these music lovers are as much a part of the iPod generation as fans of Coldplay or Tupac. Chris Kimber, head of BBC Radio Interactive, is still stunned by the success. "When I was asked for an estimate before this experiment, all I could do was look at our most popular speech programme available for download." That was In Our Time, the Radio 4 discussion programme headed by Melvyn Bragg. It scooped up 25,000 downloads in a week - a figure that sounded impressive until Beethoven got in on the act.

In the run-up to the Beethoven releases, Radio 3's controller Roger Wright had discussions with the commercial sector to keep them informed of the download experiment. "No one really had any idea what the pick-up might be because we're dealing with such an immature marketplace. One person from a major record label said that it's like the Wild West, no one really knows what's out there."

The BBC's technical bods hoped that the classical-music experiment would do two things. First, encourage classical-music listeners who were apprehensive of new technology to try downloading. "We wanted people to know that downloading is not just about pop music and ringtones," says Kimber.

Second, the BBC wanted to lure those classical-music virgins who were already comfortable with downloading. Both aims were apparently achieved. The BBC website's message boards and sites, such as www.audioscrobbler.com (which monitors the musical tastes of users) showed that some of the people downloading the Beethoven symphonies were listening to classical music by choice for the first time. Others were traditional Radio 3 listeners thrilled to find a new way of accessing their favourite music.

Everyone in the industry was astounded at the result. So astounded, that they have been left on the back foot. No one doubts now that a huge appetite exists in the marketplace for classical music delivered straight to your computer or on to your iPod. But how best to assuage that appetite? The BBC downloads may have been free but, as Wright points out, "If a commercial label got even 10 per cent of that response it would still be a huge leap for downloading".

Forward-thinking record-company executives are already talking about using free downloads as a method to tempt new classical buyers in the future. "I hope the commercial market will pick up on this," says Wright. "We are all in this together. We all want to get classical music out there."

He says that the same record companies that recently complained about the free Beethoven downloads were keen to discuss the experiment before it happened. "But I entirely understand their sensitivity. That's why I'm at pains to point out that this isn't part of some grand strategy." In fact, the next BBC Radio 3 plan that could include downloading is months away - a week devoted to Bach's music in the run-up to Christmas.

In the meantime, Beethoven's appeal to more than a million listeners could kick-start a revolution in the downloading industry. An iTunes spokeswoman says that the site already caters to classical listeners: "There is an extensive library of classical music available, with a daily Top 100 songs and albums, a new-releases and a great-conductors section, and special features on events such as the Proms."

Although he is reluctant to name any culprits, Kimber still thinks that the downloading sites are letting classical-music listeners down: "There could be more classical music available. The choice on the legal downloading sites is limited. For example, you may get only one version of Beethoven's Fifth. But if you're into classical music, the version is incredibly important. These people should get as much choice as everyone else."

Much has been made of the use of crossover artists, such as the Simon Cowell creation Il Divo, to attract listeners put off by the demands of traditional classics. But this Beethoven phenomenon proves that the audience has been seriously underestimated. Geoffrey Poole, a composer and professor of composition at Bristol University, believes that the downloading surge is proof of people aiming higher in their musical tastes: "We're seeing, in this decade, a reaction across all the age groups to a debasement of music, a dumbing-down to the middle-of-the-road position." He thinks that this rejection of the bland and safe is epitomised by the sudden enthusiasm for more alternative rock. "And now, I hope, we're seeing it in classical music, too. People are looking for different experiences."

Perhaps the key to the Beethoven success was that the BBC offered the music for free. Legal rulings in the US Supreme Court mean that file-sharing (freely exchanging music and films between friends) is now illegal, and any software company promoting it can be prosecuted. Downloaders accustomed to freely swapping music must part with hard cash. The BBC offered a respite from that.

But would young people, who acquired their first taste of Beethoven via the downloads, seriously go out and pay for it in their local CD store?

"Those who trialled downloads for free may now turn to commercial sites," Kimber says. "If your interest has been sparked, you are not going to be satisfied with a BBC download at below-CD quality with a Radio 3 intro. You'll want more. If we've raised the profile of classical music, then we're happy."

And could the enthusiasm for classical downloads gradually overcome the decline in classical music? In particular, could it revive an interest in live performance? Poole is not optimistic: "People are unwilling to give up two hours of their lives to sit in a hall these days," he says. "It's seen as a white-haired and strait-laced experience. And that's a shame, because the real musical experience is still the live one."

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