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Is YouTube killing classical music performances?

YouTube has become a central place for the appreciation and discussion of the genre, but pirate recordings can make live performances nerve-racking for performers and are seldom properly shot.

The Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman believes 'the destruction of music because of YouTube is enormous'. EPA
The Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman believes 'the destruction of music because of YouTube is enormous'. EPA

YouTube might be destroying classical music. The Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman said as much after storming out of a recent concert in Germany. Performing in Essen, Zimerman found himself distracted by an audience member recording his playing on a smartphone, which broke his concentration.

The pianist left the stage soon after, then returned to explain to the audience that “the destruction of music because of YouTube is enormous” and that he had proposed recordings to music companies only to be told: “We’re sorry, that’s already on YouTube.”

This could have just been Zimerman’s anger talking. Known as a somewhat spiky figure, the Polish musician has in the past made political statements onstage and even covers his pianos with a little tent before performances so that no one can see him tune them.

Despite this, there’s no denying that the amount of free, filmed classical music available has mushroomed recently. Ranging from immaculately crisp material filmed with concert halls’ consent to wobbly, distorted footage snatched illicitly on smartphones, YouTube is now packed with classical music clips, from classic performances to new student productions.

Even if it doesn’t affect their income, pirate recordings can make even obscure live performances nerve-racking for performers. As the soprano Diana Damrau recently told the German newspaper Die Welt: “Today, all rooms have ears. You can never feel unobserved, whether you sing in Augsburg, Glasgow or at the Met.”

This sort of free material is everywhere in music but its effect on the classical music world in general is greater.

Musicians of all types are turning more to live rather than studio performances to make money, but while pop recordings are still in fairly good health, the number of new classical music releases is low and sales even smaller. It’s now possible, for example, to reach the No 1 spot in the US Billboard Top 10 with fewer than 1,000 album sales.

Classical music clips are also more-convincing rivals to studio-recorded performances than the average live pop video. With clear lighting, static performances and a quiet, attentive audience, even secretly filmed classical clips are generally better than the bobbing black silhouettes, fuzzy sound and background chatter of smartphone pop footage.

And with performance so key to classical music appreciation – fans return to the same pieces again and again to see how different musicians interpret them – YouTube has become a particularly central place for the appreciation and discussion of the genre. But while YouTube has opened up a new sphere for classical music, critics such as Zimerman see it as cannibalising album- and concert-ticket sales, cutting out large swathes of the fees that make performers’ careers feasible.

The new technology also has its fans in the classical world, however. Matt Jolly, a British video and live-streaming producer who works with classical music, insists that it has opened up more new avenues than it has closed down old.

“It may require a very high volume of clicks, but there are stories of classical musicians who get paid for putting their stuff on YouTube,” says Jolly. “It gives young and untried musicians a platform they wouldn’t have had in the years of CD recordings – it’s a lot less investment to click on YouTube than to buy a CD and so listeners explore more. There’s a sense of organic discovery there that was much harder to foster in the old days.”

But while films made with the performer’s agreement can be a useful foot in the door for budding performers, there’s no denying that illegally snapped footage does no music lover any favours.

As Jolly succinctly puts it: “Where Zimerman is bang on the money is on how annoying it is to film in concerts. It annoys the audience and the performers and, in my opinion, doesn’t produce anything decent.”

artslife@thenational.ae

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