Some thoughts on the new wave of digital classical music concerts

Over the past few weeks I’ve enjoyed watching a host of new concert series online. I wanted to use this blog post to document what I’ve enjoyed, why I’ve enjoyed it, and share some thoughts on what could do with being improved a bit.

What follows isn’t exhaustive. There’s a problem when you start scribbling about what you think – it triggers further thoughts which need to be thought through and documented.

If you’re in a hurry, these are the main points I’m exploring in this post:

  • What’s been good in the digital realm over the past few weeks?
  • Why has it appealed to me?
  • What needs to change?

What’s been good recently?

Be sure to watch the London Mozart Players from Fairfield Halls playing Mendelssohn’s Italian. The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Marquee TV series has packed a visual punch – the Messiaen (Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum) from last week was stunning. Music at Malling‘s excellent Classical Kicks pre-record fronted by the brilliant Lizzie Ball is compelling. And without doubt, City of London Sinfonia’s utterly charming Goldberg Variations from Southwark Cathedral is definitely worth a look. Also take time to experience Opera Holland Park’s video on demand option – the distribution method makes for a seamless user experience. More detail on the Thoroughly Good Digital Concerts page this week.

These aren’t billed as critically acclaimed performances necessarily – more examples of the kind of content I’ve appreciated over the past few weeks.

Why has it been good?

These experiences have been satisfying because they’ve appeared authentic and sincere. They’ve not tried to substitute live performance, but instead striven to create a digital experience.

A lot of this is down to polished videography (angles, lighting, editing techniques, and sound mix), but its also down to the presence and plausibility of those people that appear in it.

Put very simply, everyone is in the business of making TV now. Those who actively choose simplicity (not in itself an easy thing to design) are delivering a quality experience that creates value for money.

What needs to change?

Again, for busy people, here’s a summary of thoughts:

  • Build the digital experience from the idea of it being something translated, rather than pretending it’s a direct equivalent of the live experience.
  • Visuals and storytelling are central to maintaining attention digital concerts throughout
  • Reflect the small details of the live experience in vision – these will trigger memories of live in the audience (the video equivalent of short story writing)
  • Administrators need to shift their thinking and overcome resistance – digital concerts are opportunities to experiment with storytelling
  • Audiences need to adjust their expectations: compelling digital concerts aren’t intended to be substitutes for live, they’re a different offering
  • Marketing and communications need to create stories around the release of these recordings that create a sense of occasion around virtual
  • Pay close attention to the user experience and user journey
  • Confusing labelling creates barriers
  • Strive for the seamless, simplest, and quickest user journey
  • Sector-wide collaboration on a uniform experience

Think of it a translation not an equivalent

Part of the resistance to digital streams both from a production and consumer perspective is down to an assumption that digital is a trying to be an acceptable like-for-like equivalent to the live classical music experience. This sets up an expectation that will never be met. Digital concerts (like TV) aren’t the same as live. Why are we trying to make out that they are? Why does anyone think they are? The two are different containers for the same music. What is delivered via a digital concert is different from what is experienced in the concert hall, just as radio is different to TV. Because that expectation is there, disappointment will always follow. Resistance sets in. On the production side that results in people either not embracing the storytelling opportunities; on the audience side that results in people experiencing disappointment when they do sign up and watch a digital concert, assuming they sign up at all.

Visuals and storytelling are doing the heavy-lifting

As an audience member who longs for the live experience to return, I figured I would end up in that resistance camp. However, I’ve been surprised about how quickly I’ve adjusted to looking out for different details in pre-recorded digital content. This means that the visual element needs to delight the eyes both in terms of visual design, direction and storytelling.

The LPO does this well capitalising on the interior front of house shots to set the scene, bathing the interior of the Royal Festival Hall with light to create a cinematic feel to the finished product. Slow-motion introductions of conductors walking to the stage set the tone, reduce the heart rate, creating a sense of anticipation in the viewer. This, for me, is the digital equivalent of walking in through the venue doors, up the stairs, handing my ticket to the usher and heading to my seat. The language necessary to convey a sense of occasion has adapted to fit the size of the aperture we look at the content through.

Look for the detail on stage

A wide side shot of an orchestra isn’t the primary shot anymore, the cutaway is. I found myself looking out for detail that elevates my perception I’m present in the space – small detail in shots which give a human quality to the experience. Over-the-shoulder effortlessly achieves this, so too capturing those moments when players exchange glances with one another. More demonstrative players (so long as they’re authentic and sincere in their movements) help drive energy too and hint to me that even though all of this is a bit weird for everyone at the moment, the performers I’m watching are in the moment, are doing the thing we’d expect of them. The London Mozart Players have achieved this well working with Apple and Biscuit on their video production. Similarly, the Philharmonia’s Benedetti/Classic FM production from Battersea Arts Centre. Authentic expression translates well on camera.

What digital has to do is look for those elements in the live performance which can be translated into a digital experience. We’re not pointing the camera at the stage in order that a wide angle shot will capture the experience, but instead creating a version of that ‘as live’ experience for consumption within the context of the digital world. Digital video is graduating: everybody is expected to make TV now.

Audiences need to look for a (digital) sense of occasion

What is clear to me is that audience expectations need to shift too.

The sense of occasion created by a visit to the bar, a meal or a chat with friends beforehand isn’t going to be easily translatable into the digital world. But I’ve been surprised by how quickly I’ve come to accept the idea of a concert’s premiere time as a kind of broadcast time. I know whose concert is available on what day and, although it might sound a bit quaint to admit it, I look forward to those moments. If I can’t watch then, I will and have ended up setting aside a block of time when I can watch it on the TV at the weekend, for example. And what’s interesting for me is that this is a deliberate choice – time I’ve actively blocked out for me. I don’t normally do that. It’s not a substitute for the joy of going to a concert hall – no one is suggesting otherwise – but for the time being its bringing me closer to a series of ensembles and their seasons. And in some cases I’m perhaps even more aware of what each orchestra has programmed because I have it at my fingertips.

This idea of ‘digital occasion‘ maybe a difficult concept to embrace, especially if an assumption is held that what’s being created is attempting to be an equivalent. As an audience member I recognise the experience isn’t comparable, but it is an alternative I’ve unexpectedly grown accustomed to.

Its Marcomms moment

Creating that sense of occasion is the work of marketing and communications. Now more than ever before comms professionals are playing a key role in creating a sense of anticipation around a virtual event. Announcements need to underpinned by a sense of self-belief and self-confidence. Language must have any hint of self-doubt edited out. A sense of continuity needs to be maintained – normal service has resumed, even if the delivery and product has adjusted somewhat. Some organisations and individuals are already doing this – the communications for Snape, LMP, LPO are good examples, though this list isn’t exhaustive. This isn’t in itself a massive shift in practise I don’t think – by and large marcomms professionals have been doing this for years with album releases and TV PR. The point is that for this present time more PRs are having to share announcements about audio/visual recordings. Finding the potential news line that command attention is the challenge. Marcomms have the biggest challenge right now.

Pay close attention to the user experience

The Marcomms challenge will be made easier when the end-user’s online experience is made more uniform, and aligned to other digital entertainment experiences. Failure to do so will mean the digital concert experience won’t be a viable option for classical music fans and UK orchestras will end up relying on conventional distribution methods.

I’ve experienced a range of user experiences over the past few weeks. Very few have been seamless.

Confusing labelling creates barriers

It’s seemingly small detail like button labelling, user journeys, page load times, website navigation bars, and search functions that create resistance. Same principal as website design. I’m also including hardware connectivity in this too, that is what device is the user watching this on and how easy is it to connect it to an external device like a TV?

Those who class themselves as early adopters will be the most at ease with purchase experiences on the internet. Those who followed will now be accustomed (without even realising it) or the steps one goes through to buy a book, or order online supermarket deliveries, or select something to watch from Netflix or iPlayer. These repeat experiences set up expectations in the mind of anyone who is using the internet, such that as users we look for recognisable signposts which not only signal what we need to do next to get the thing we want, but also to reassure us before we’ve even embarked on the purchase process that this is something we’re prepared to commit to in pursuit of the product we think we might want (in this case, a digital concert).

Strive for the simplest, quickest, and seamless user journey

A poor user experience creates barriers to the end goal – access to the concert. If there’s already a perceived resistance to engaging with the concert because we assume that it won’t be the same as being there in the concert hall, then those barriers appear even bigger in our perception.

If the user you’re targeting is in an older demographic and has little or no experience of using the internet let alone connecting their mobile device or laptop to a TV, then the barriers are going to present themselves as some kind of mountain range.

That means that purchase experiences for these digital experiences need to be uniform. Users need to have a rough idea of what they can expect before they embark on the process. The barriers need to be removed. Prior to COVID the classical music world was tying itself in knots trying to address the perceived barriers of access to and appeal of the physical space and content. Now some parts of the sector need to address the digital barriers which are stopping users from completing the user journeys which will deliver the revenue they’re looking for. This is before we get onto the subject of pricing.

Join forces to create a uniform user experience

I believe there’s a need for arts organisations to collaborate to create a uniform user experience, one that is aligned with that experienced on the likes of Netflix, Amazon or the BBC. There needs to be uniform archive strategy of content too which, combined with this improved seamless user experience will serve up assets to consumers and drive up revenues as a result. That doesn’t necessarily mean reinventing the wheel, but instead pooling resources, drawing on development already made in other parts of the entertainment industry, in order to create a uniform product.

When this is addressed, then adjusting to an additional ‘concert’ experience is something the user will do (even without even realising it). At that point it makes the work of marketing and communications not only easier but ever more important in drawing attention to new products.

It would be all too easy to dismiss digital streaming as a poor substitute (as I’ve seen a few other commentators do right now) for the live experience. I don’t think anyone should thinking of this process as trying to create a subsitute, but instead the beginning of a journey where an enhanced digital experience is the end goal. Orchestras, ensembles and other arts organisations are at the beginning of this journey, their hands forced by the impact COVID has had on the most obvious way they connect with audiences. That so many have readily and swiftly pivoted is a real testament to the kind of resolve creative individuals are renowned for. But the next stage in development is vital if digital audiences are going to join arts organisations on the journey.

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