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."

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?