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The Digital Concert Hall: A Virtual Venue, Literally
By Rebecca Schmid
June 2, 2015
The Berlin Philharmonic performs in three different spaces: The Philharmonie, the Philharmonie’s Chamber Hall, and the DCH
When the Berlin Philharmonic launched its Digital Concert Hall in 2008, most home computer screens were not equipped to accommodate an HD signal. Technology having developed several light years since, the DCH is now available in full HD across all platforms, including four kinds of smart TVs. The latest app, for Apple devices, has received some 700,000 downloads since its launch last August.
And if that’s not enough proof of the Hall’s rise in an otherwise nascent market, DCH’s subscriber base has an annual growth rate of 25 to 30 percent.
The mission and the funding to support it
“It’s a logical alternative for a famous orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic to take matters into its own hands,” says Robert Zimmermann, managing director of Berlin Phil Media GmbH, a department that oversees the orchestra’s media, from the Digital Concert Hall to its recently founded in-house label. “Classical music was being pushed farther and farther to special interest channels,” he continues. “The Digital Concert Hall is an attempt to reverse that. We want to be available for our fans any time and have enough visibility so that we don’t disappear.”
Where tradition meets innovation
With such a reputation, it’s no surprise that the orchestra was able to win support for its Digital Concert Hall not just from the Deutsche Bank, which recently renewed its contract for another five years of funding, but also from Sony, which in 2012 provided the state-of-the-art HD cameras and microphones that are mounted around the auditorium and stage.
The virtual venue
The main challenge was convincing musicians and the various rights holders to cooperate. Initially some of the players were nervous about the perceived unreliable sound quality of an Internet connection and with being captured live on camera. But by involving them and all the affected parties in the project from the beginning, and by making a special effort toward transparency in the distribution of revenues, the players and rights holders were soon convinced of the project’s worth. By now, says Zimmermann, recording for web stream has become part of the everyday: “I think we took the right path because everyone feels involved and has a part in the success of the project.”
A plethora of platforms
Although 30 percent of users watch on mobile devices, over half of those do so through a Wi-Fi connection to their computer or smart TV. The rest are equally divided between smart TVs and computers. Zimmermann considers smart TV the market’s most promising sector. “The usability is always getting better and faster,” he says. “It won’t be long before clients are practically unable to tell the difference between cable and Internet.”
The Hall is also available over TV boxes such as Nexus TV and Amazon Fire. PC-based applications have proved less viable. A Windows 8 app developed last year has been successful on Microsoft tablets but not on desk- and laptops. There will be another attempt, however, when Windows 10 comes out in August.
Where the money goes
“The project has to and will stand on its own feet,” says Zimmermann. “It is just a question of how many new projects we want to do. We are currently not making a profit because we are always investing the money in producing new programs.”
Quality meets quantity
But the all-time hit remains the 2010 Peter Sellars semi-staging or “ritualization” of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. Zimmermann estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 people have viewed some or all of the performance, which also became the Philharmonic’s first self-produced DVD (it is also available on Blu-ray).
Expanding the media empire, looking ahead
Last year, the Philharmonic launched its own label, making its products available through its own online store as well as marketplaces such as iTunes and Amazon. The label’s first release of Schumann Symphonies under Music Director Simon Rattle is available as a linen-lined CD box accompanied by a Blu-ray disc including “behind-the-scenes” footage, a download code for the album, and a seven-day pass to the Digital Concert Hall. It is also available on vinyl or as a purely digital download.
“Everything is bundled together,” says Zimmermann. “When you buy something from us, you buy a concert experience.”
Since 2010, the Philharmonic has also made selected programs available live in HD to movie theaters. It currently streams, by satellite, three performances a season to 80 theaters in Germany and 40 in other European countries. Tickets sell at a rate of about 50 percent to 60 percent in Germany, and slightly less in the rest of Europe. Although the growth rate has remained more or less unchanged over the past three years, Zimmermann considers theaters to be an important channel for distributing the live product and hopes to add additional territories in the future. Other plans for the Digital Concert Hall include streaming content from the Philharmonie that does not necessarily involve the Berlin Philharmonic, be it a chamber music concert or a city festival featuring other orchestras. Also in development is an app in Chinese to meet the demands of that market.
And the next step in visual quality is just around the corner: Zimmermann speculates that they will make the jump from HD (1,080 pixels) to 4K Ultra HD (4,000 pixels), accompanied by high resolution audio, by 2017 at the latest. The future for Berlin’s virtual venue looks—and sounds—bright indeed.
Rebecca Schmid is a classical music and culture journalist based in Berlin. She writes for the New York Times, Financial Times, Musical America Worldwide, Gramophone, and many other publications.
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