By Ricky O’Bannon

The Internet has ushered in a new era for classical music according to American Symphony Orchestra Music Director Leon Botstein.

Botstein — who authored a recent guest blog for the London magazine Gramophone — argued that while recording is no longer a lucrative revenue stream like it was in the era of vinyl and CDs, digital recordings can still serve the orchestra’s musician.

“Amidst all the obsessive talk about whether new technology can ‘save’ the record industry — usually talked about purely in money terms — it is sometimes missed that digital presents a great opportunity,” Botstein said.

In the age of CDs, listeners often looked for “the definitive” recording of a Mahler symphony or Tchaikovsky piano concerto. But the proliferation of digital recordings means that while musicians and artists aren’t compensated as highly as they once were, fans can afford to have a dozen recordings of a work quite easily.

The result, Botstein said, is that recordings can act like a guidebook for a great museum that prepares and excites listeners for a trip to the concert hall.

Leon Botstein
Leon Botstein

“As a schoolboy about to travel to Florence, you might have once looked in your schoolbook at a picture of a Botticelli and then you would go to the Uffizi and see the real thing,” he said. “That is something new that digital [recording] brings.”

The art museum metaphor describes a business model battle that has been raging in the popular music world for several years. Former Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl recently outlined the new landscape as he sees it.

“You want people to [listen] to your music? Give them your music,” Grohl told Digital Spy. “And then go play a show. They like hearing your music? They'll go see a show. To me, it's that simple.”

British band Radiohead were among the first to usher that philosophy change in 2007 when it offered its new album In Rainbows digitally where downloaders could pay anything they wanted or even get the album for free. Critics of Grohl, Radiohead or U2 (who recently gave away their new album via iTunes) will point out that it’s easy to give recordings away and rely on concert sales when you have reached superstar status, but many up-and-coming bands look at cheap or free digital recordings as an instrument to get themselves out there — not as the sacred cow of revenue it once was.

Many classical ensembles are beginning to think about digital records the same way, viewing them as tools for promotion and audience development rather than income. When the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra signed a deal to distribute 10 live concert performances annually via iTunes and Amazon, Artistic Vice President Jeremy Rothman told the Philadelphia Inquirer he didn’t view the deal in the same light as the orchestra’s previous recording contracts with major labels like EMI.

"That model doesn't exist anymore," he said. “It could provide a helpful amount of money for the organization, but this is not a silver bullet or even a Band-Aid. The goal is to get the orchestra out there. It's not about making money.”

Beyond the financial changes, the shifting business model might offer some artistic benefits for classical music. Botstein points out that when no piece of music is bankable, there’s no longer pressure from labels on orchestras to only record works that can expect a large audience, which brings available recordings of works that scarcely made it to classical CD shelves.

Similarly, with digital recordings proliferating, the audience focus can shift from seeking that perfect, definitive recording — when live concerts are rarely perfect — to viewing concert mp3s as an education and reference tool for what a particular performance was like. This, Botstein said, is why he has focused on releasing unvarnished concert recordings without patch sessions or audio retouching.

“There are imperfections and blemishes — a wrong entrance here, a missed note even there. Instead of being embarrassed about that, I feel it gives a vitality, an unpredictability, and certainly it keeps alive the spontaneity — a quality you feel in any live performance,” he said.

While revenue from orchestra recordings in the Internet era is unlikely to ever reach the heights it saw from a bygone model, that vitality may give music lovers something to celebrate.