RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Dilettante: Creating Opportunities for Classical Music

img  Tobias Fischer

The debate about how to make classical music more popular seems somewhat obsessed with the idea of „educating“ the audience. Would it be correct to say that you're taking the exact opposite approach: To provide interested listeners with the tools and infrastructure to educate themselves and find their own way to and through the world of classical music?
I'm not really sure that the two approaches you've described are really 'opposites' per se, and I'd say we're doing a bit of both. On the one hand, the more explicitly 'educational' something seems, the more of a turn-off it will be for some people, and I think classical music suffers a little from the idea that it's 'good for you'. But the current research around digital trends shows that many people are returning to the idea of 'authority' and relying less on the 'trusted friend' idea that was spawned by the User Generated Content phenomenon. Sure there are lots of bloggers and anyone can blog, but a hierarchy of bloggers has developed too. So a 'trusted friend' might be useful when you're looking for a hotel on Trip Advisor, but when you're discovering an art form it might be less so. Not that this is surprising of course. Let's face it: if everyone's got a view and the means to express it you've got to find a way to cut through all of that noise. Finding people who seem to know what they're talking about is a logical way of doing that.

At Dilettante, we've always taken the view that some new listeners (and even old ones) do want guidance from 'experts', so we host Norman Lebrecht's 'CD of the Week', alongside features like our 'Celebrity Playlists' where people can learn more about what music 'classical stars' listen to. Also, our Google stats show that a lot of people find our site by doing basic classical music searches for 'Purcell', for instance, or 'Manfred Symphony' so our content is a useful resource.

At the same time, we've created tools for users to talk about music between themselves, and of course we make a considerable amount of information available to them through our Music Library. As you've said, it's up to them how they use these tools, though, and how much 'education' they're hungry for.  

To a lot of people, the concept of classical music seems to be diametrically opposed to the fast-lane times we're living in. On the other hand, audiences can react quite strongly to it when exposed to it in the right way. Do you feel there is a deep-down desire for this kind of music?

I think there will always been a 'deep-down desire' for beauty, and people will therefore be drawn to pleasurable artistic experiences, along with those that engage them intellectually and emotionally in myriad ways. It's certainly the case that really 'listening' to classical music requires a quality of attention that pop music doesn't because it's usually considerably more complex, and that sometimes seems at odds with the age in which we live. But even today people do concentrate on things that interest them, whether it's a Mahler symphony or a video game.

I think a critical issue with classical music is actually getting people to it, both physically and emotionally. I interviewed Evan Ziporyn from the Bang on a Can All-Stars the other day for a piece on Dilettante, and he commented that Le Poisson Rouge, the classical club in Greenwich Village, didn't create an audience, they found one. Conversely, anyone who thinks only serious, older listeners would venture into formal concert halls wasn't at the Royal Festival Hall for last Autumn's London Sinfonietta Steve Reich concert. It was wild, and certainly proved that younger listeners are prepared to troop down to the Southbank when something really compelling is on offer.

What is the Dilettante-experience like once you've signed up?

The Dilettante journey might look like this: a musician creates a profile. First, they connect some of their favourite recordings in the Dilettante library to their profile so other users can see what music they like. Then they decide to upload their own recording of Mozart's Piano Concerto 21, and include it on the site's radio player. That way, anyone listening to Dilettante Radio might hear it, and click through to their member profile. Our musician is performing that piece at a concert on Friday, so they add it to the Dilettante Events calendar, with a click-through to buy tickets, a video of their last concert and a link to the description of the Piano Concerto in our Music Library.

Meantime, a listener has linked the Dilettante Mozart bio to their own member profile because he's one of their favourite composers. They do a search on 'Mozart' and - amongst reviews, biographies and a list of recordings - discover the mp3 from our new musician. Seeing that there is an upcoming concert, our listener decides to purchase tickets. Following the concert, they write a review on their Dilettante blog, which appears on the Members' homepage. Our listener 'connects' with the musician, and sends them a message saying how much they enjoyed the concert. Since they're 'connected' they'll be notified any time the musician posts a concert on Dilettante. Meantime, another user spots the review and recommends a Brahms work our Mozart fan might also like. This spawns a debate about whether Mozart or Brahms is the greater composer. In these ways, the virtual world and real world interact seamlessly...

From your experience, what does the current member-base of Dilettante look like?

Among our registered members, the two biggest segments are 'listeners' (from novices to aficionados) and 'musicians', and we've got almost equal numbers in each of those categories. The 'musicians' category is is slightly skewed by composers, because of course our 'Digital Composer-in-Residence' competition encouraged a lot of composers to join the site, and many of them have remained active in the community. 'Organisations' such as record labels and performance venues make up about 10% of what's left.

Having said all of that, organisations and musicians are sometimes more visibly active on the site than listeners because they're the ones with a message to get across, and with declining marketing budgets they're embracing social media as a key part of that strategy. As I mentioned above, though, our stats show that we get a lot of traffic from people doing general classical music searches, buying tickets through our events calendar or music from our retail partners, but those people don't necessarily interact with the community per se so they're not visible on the site.

With the idea of creating a real community, in how far has feedback by users already been helpful in improving the site?
It's been brilliant, actually. In fact the feedback we received in our first year of life had a big impact on the decisions we made when we developed our Phase 2 site, which launched last June. I've been really gratified that lots of people have recognised and been really supportive of what we're doing, and when feedback is infused with that kind of enthusiasm it's very easy to digest, even if it's not always positive. On the other hand, people do occasionally make great but totally unrealistic suggestions because they don't know what's involved in terms of web programming and design, and occasionally I suspect they think we're being obtuse by not 'simply' doing what they suggest.

With concerts again turning into the focal point of classical music, do you see a possibility of the site expanding in that direction?

Obviously, as a website, we're mainly active in the digital space, but we've always done what we can to support live music-making and we're committed to creating opportunities for our members. For instance, in July 2008, we co-produced a classical club night in East London featuring the Elysian Quartet performing some really interesting new work, and then we ran a webcast of the event on our site. And of course, last year our Digital Composer-in-Residence project culminated in a live concert featuring the London Sinfonietta at a wonderful historic venue in London called Wilton's Music Hall. It would be great to do more of this, and especially to collaborate with young performers and composers, and we'd love to see the site move in that direction. And of course in the short term we try to support other organisations' live events, which we're happy to do. Fortunately, lots of people are enthusiastic about collaborating in mutually beneficial ways, and that sensibility is the basis of 'community.'

You've always been very open about the underlying economics of the site. Is this also because you believe that, just like most other genres of music, classical music needs a real fanbase to support it, without relying exclusively on subsidies and private donations?
Yes, that's exactly what I think. Someone asked me recently why Dilettante is a private business, rather than a charity. It's because I think the people who listen to classical music and love it need to understand that this genre requires their active support. Putting aside whatever debates are currently taking place around the future of the orchestra model, for instance, a business that champions classical music as an art form shouldn't by definition need a subsidy. But what it does need is for every person who is touched by it or moved by it to become an ambassador for it. They need to throw on a disc, or their iPod, or Spotify, grab a friend and say 'listen to this - you won't believe your ears.' That probably sounds naive and romantic...which is fine!

Some may not consider „Dilettante“ visionary enough. To me however, it seemed like a good idea to actually do something to shape the future, rather than dreaming up Utopian ideas about what it might look like ...
Frankly, I'm wary of words like 'visionary' and 'revolutionary' which are sexy but usually meaningless, and which I avoid. Our slogan 'lead the classical uprising' is meant to inspire, but of course it's also tongue in cheek. And the unsexy truth is that meaningful change - in which thinking and not just tools are transformed - is usually incremental.

The Internet offers classical music a range of significant opportunities for discovery and distribution, which means audiences can grow. Our starting point at Dilettante has always been to say 'what does classical music need in order to remain vibrant, and what opportunities does this new world create for this particular music?' In that sense, we're not jumping on every technical bandwagon that happens to be rolling through town: any new technology needs to enable our goals in some way. The one caveat I'd throw in, though, is that people seem to forget that while there are lots of brilliant things we could do, we are a small start-up company operating from limited resources. As such, there are a dozen things we would like to have achieved yesterday - let alone tomorrow - but we just don't have the luxury of turning things around that quickly. And that is incredibly frustrating!

Homepage: Dilettante

Related articles

Rolf Lislevand: Diminuito and the logic of Electric Guitars
The timemachine of Norwegian Lutist ...
Denis Matsuev: The Carnegie Hall Concert a Romantic Feast
Russian Pianist Denis Matsuev is ...
Bösendorfer & Markson Pianos: Sales Event benefits Festival
After being selected as one ...
Peter Eötvös: Love and other Demons haunt Glyndebourne
Hungarian “composer, conductor and teacher” ...
David Zinman: Conductor continues Mahler cycle
Conductor David Zinman has crossed ...

Partner sites