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Making it easier to get your Phil

The L.A. orchestra will soon have concerts ready to download from iTunes. Buzz and bucks are part of the plan.

March 17, 2006|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Like a lot of iPod owners, Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen has a motley collection of recordings on his little white portable music player. There's Radiohead, Bjork, some meditation music, a symphony he expects to conduct.

Before the month is out, though, Salonen and millions of listeners like him will have yet another option to add to that mix: Philharmonic concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall in programs available nowhere else.

The Philharmonic, along with many other entertainment providers, has heard the siren call of a new technology and decided that downloadable wares are key not just to more revenue but to more buzz. Today it will become one of the first classical music organizations to act on that notion by trumpeting the imminent availability of four concerts, including two from its upcoming Minimalist Jukebox series, as downloads on Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes Music Store.

"I happen to believe that downloading is the relevant channel for music distribution," Salonen says. "There used to be this myth that classical music fans are not technologically savvy. But I think that's b.s."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 18, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Phil downloads -- An article in Friday's Calendar about the L.A. Philharmonic making music available for download at the iTunes Music Store misspelled the name of the record label Deutsche Grammophon as Deutsch Gramophone. Also, James Jolly is former editor of Gramophone Magazine; James Inverne is the current editor.

Digital music has been available for several years now. Most record labels offer downloadable CDs over iTunes and similar online music services, and some offer libraries of streaming music.

The new wrinkle the Philharmonic's plans reveal is that classical music is increasingly getting in on the action. The budget classical label Naxos markets both downloadable CDs and streaming music and is considered an industry leader. According to Jim Sturgeon, chief executive of Naxos of America, just 3% of the label's revenue came from Internet downloads in 2004, but that figure rose to 8% last year. This year, with Naxos recordings being downloaded at a rate of 200,000 a month, he expects it to be nearly double that.

"This isn't just a way for people to browse music," he says. "It's become a very viable part of our business model."

It's too soon to tell whether downloading will produce much income for orchestras, especially because classical fans tend to be older than most downloaders. A recent National Endowment for the Arts study showed that the share of the U.S. population attending classical music concerts dropped from 13% in 1982 to 11.6% in 2002 -- a rate of decline of 11% -- and that the average age of concertgoers increased from 40 to 49. But several American orchestras have floated similar plans, which some compare to the radio broadcasts that were once a typical way such groups reached out.

Still, the Philharmonic is promising an unusually rapid turnaround time and some of its most adventurous programming.

The concerts will be downloadable roughly a week after they take place. The first two will be recorded March 26-28 and available by March 31 or soon after. The second batch will be recorded at the end of April and offered in early May.

The first pair, the Minimalist Jukebox concerts, will include music of the last few decades by Arvo Part, Louis Andriessen and Steve Reich. The two others will offer Beethoven symphonies programmed with pieces by contemporary innovators Witold Lutoslawski and Anders Hillborg. Philharmonic officials estimate that the cost to download a concert will be less than $10.

Neither Salonen nor Deborah Borda, Philharmonic president and chief executive, promises riches from the project, but both call the move essential.

"Ten years from today, they might not be making CDs," Borda says. "We really don't know what the delivery system will be. The new technology takes investigation, investment and practice."

Independence days

Meanwhile, some musicians and music groups have used digital technology to take matters into their own hands, in the style of such indie rock acts as Aimee Mann and Ani DiFranco. The London Symphony Orchestra started its own label in 2000 to sell its live recordings, and English conductor John Eliot Gardiner sells partial recordings of his concerts just minutes after they're over.

The LSO sells a substantial portion -- as much as 30% of some of its titles -- through online music services, says Chaz Jenkins, head of the LSO Live label. "To reach new audiences, we need it, since shelf space for classical music has gone down over the last few years."

Jenkins adds that attendance at LSO concerts has actually increased since its label started.

Perhaps because of its diminished retail availability, classical is disproportionately represented online. It makes up less than 4% of record sales. But according to Joseph McKesson, classical editor at iTunes until 2004, 12% of music downloaded from the service during his stint was classical, and he believes that share is growing.

Despite widespread enthusiasm for digital solutions, however, hurdles remain.

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