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At andante.com, the finale

After five years, the classical music website draws the curtain.

February 03, 2006|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Andante.com -- a website devoted to classical music that combined a news service with a record label with streaming music from symphony orchestras -- shut down this week after its French owner decided it was unable to sustain the site's costs.

The news is either another sign of the demise of classical music, an indicator that the Web and the symphony are an awkward fit, or neither of the above.

Although it launched in March 2001, just months before the dot-com bust, Andante created excitement in the music world for its online "magazine" of news and features as well as its boutique record label, which featured distinctive black-and-red packaging and reissues of rare historical recordings.

"When it was launched, it was incredibly ambitious," said Doug McLennan, a Seattle music critic who runs the online resource artsjournal.com. "They hired A-list writers, some of the best music critics around. But a couple of years ago, they scaled back dramatically, and a lot of things that made the site really attractive" were discontinued.

Observers agreed the demise was a shame but not a surprise.

In andante's first few years, when it had a loft office in New York's fashionable Chelsea district, a full-time staff of two dozen and freelancers worldwide, the site drew somewhere between 50,000 and 90,000 unique visitors per month, according to its longtime editor, Matthew Westphal. But technical problems, which developed shortly after the French label Naive bought it in October 2003, eventually cut into its traffic and reputation.

The Web offices moved to Paris, and the editorial office became a cat-hair-infested apartment in Queens, N.Y., in which Westphal toiled for freelance wages. Over the last few weeks, he said, "Naive decided it was unable to continue to devote money or staff time to it in part because of technical headaches that wouldn't go away."

What's less clear-cut is the larger cause and effect of the site's failure.

Andante, McLennan said, "arrived at a time when people were asking, 'Are there classical music magazines anymore?' People were hoping that this would be the kind of thing that took it to the next level."

But the business model, McLennan said, shared some of the misguided optimism of the Internet frenzy.

"Something the dot-com bust showed us," he said, "is that you need to pick the one thing you do really well and build from there. Andante wanted to be a luxury car right out of the gate."

Timothy Mangan, classical music critic at the Orange County Register, was a fan of the site but wasn't surprised by its financial troubles.

"I don't think you could sustain that kind of thing from advertising or right away from recording sales," said Mangan.

"The record label was interesting, but it was also pretty inside baseball -- live recordings of Von Karajan in 1948 conducting Strauss or something. A lot of these were available in studio versions. You had to be a real die-hard to buy stuff like that. The prices were just really high."

Does this mean that classical music doesn't work on the Web?

New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross, who runs his own blog and has long argued that the Internet and classical music are a natural fit, said, "I don't know if classical music is the issue. In general, it seems inherently difficult to run any kind of thoughtful publication on the Internet for profit -- there's been a long string of noble failures."

Former editor Westphal, who said the fate of the Andante record label is uncertain, thinks classical music and the Web still have a future together.

Classical music, he said, has "a small but passionate and geographically quite diverse following." And not only can the Internet's streaming capabilities offer music by established orchestras, as Andante did, but they "could offer a platform for little independent labels."

Andante's failure, he insisted, "doesn't say anything about the future of classical music."

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