Many months have elapsed since an event has prompted asking one of our readers’ most popular questions, “Whither goest WGBH?” Upon hearing (third-hand, since BMInt no longer receives press releases from the station) of the new recording partnership between our local classical broadcast colossus and Warner Classics, a major media conglomerate, our initial take was to welcome the news. Then we recalled how only 17 months earlier, the head of WCRB told BMInt readers [here] that he did not want to use the studios for marketing of the very kind that Warner has initiated. This seemed a delicious irony to serve up as a small plate.
How his policy on the use of the Fraser Performance Center has evolved is one the questions General Manager Anthony Rudel has declined to answer. He also left wondering about other aspects of broadcast operations, ratings and staff morale. The unanswered questions appear four paragraphs down.
In the hook for this report, a Warner press release tells us how we are about to witness a “throwback to an earlier era, when radio stations and record labels often joined forces (or were even the same entity, as was the case with NBC and RCA), Warner Classics and WCRB Classical Radio Boston are proud to announce a new partnership centered around [sic] recordings and performances for fast-rising young classical artists. The initiative updates the old model, bringing it into the 21st century by using WCRB and WGBH’s cutting-edge production facilities to make recordings with exciting new artists and to present them in unique member events that give public media supporters one-of-a-kind access to a new generation of classical talent.” [Movie companies were forced to divest themselves of theaters in major anti-trust legislation in 1948.]
Warner goes on to trumpet the release of recordings by three of its “up-and- coming stars: violinist Ben Beilman, piano twins the Naughtons, and one-handed UK pianist Nicholas McCarthy.” The program launched with the recording of Conrad Tao’s album Pictures, out October 9th.
In addition to the recordings, the Warner artists will perform a series of membership and community events hosted by WCRB—including Groupmuse, large-scale classical music house parties facilitated by the startup of the same name. These events will give Boston’s classical community the first opportunity to experience live performances from some of the most exciting young musicians in the world.
BMInt was curious about how this would play out, and also had numerous questions for GM Rudel:
In April 2014 [before drastically curtailing live from Fraser] you told BMInt readers, “One of the things that troubled me when we first looked at [live local recording] was that we had sort of become a publicity arm for all the arts groups. That’s wonderful I want to be partnered with the arts groups but we have to protect the radio station first.” It seems you have changed your opinion, since Fraser is apparently back in the on-air recording business.
What is the business nature of the partnership? Is Warner buying studio time for the recording projects? Does WCRB have say in content and artists? Does Warner have influence on programming?
How many Warner sessions will be broadcast live?
How does this Warner initiative make the station more local and more connected?
Is the Groupmuse connection good for all concerned?
The station still seems to be using the MusicMaster system of matching musical mood to time of day, and appears to be playing few of the CDs from its extensive collection.
Why do you think this approach, which you touted in our April 2014 conversation, has not increased listenership in your 18 months onboard? Market share in November 2009, just before the WGBH takeover, was a 3.0. When you took over, it was at 1.6. Now it’s moved up to 1.8. This has to be disappointing.
Do you remain personally responsible for the playlists?
How do on-air hosts feel about losing responsibility for content?
Any new shows you are proud of?
TO BE CLEAR:
The press release, which you have, tells the story and contains my official statement.
Warner Classics’ Jean-Philippe Rolland, global head of artists & repertoire and business development, was entirely forthcoming:
JR: The first year of the partnership will see the release of recordings by three of Warner Classics’ up-and-coming stars [mentioned above]. The program also received a high-profile test run with the recording of Conrad Tao’s sophomore album Pictures, out October 9th.”
BMInt: Will any Boston-area performers be featured in years to come? Is any exclusivity implied in this agreement? In other words, would Warner be pleased if WCRB embarked on similar partnerships with other media conglomerates?
It’s too early to reveal who will be part of the program, as the partnership has just begun and we are still in discussions with other artists. However, I can tell you that our plans do currently include at least one Boston-based artist, and at present we are in talks with a sufficient variety of artists to ensure that all slots are filled.
What is meant by “joining forces?” Is WCRB co-producing the albums? Is Warner simply buying studio time? How much of a partnership is this? Will Warner be bringing production/engineering staff?
JR: We are bringing the content (artists and repertoire) in agreement with the studio, and they are bringing their expertise and insight to help realize the recording. Our intention is to keep working this way, using all the resources of the studio including Antonio Oliart, the very talented in-house producer. I don’t believe there are any free partnerships anywhere these days—everyone needs to earn their living!
Is Warner making these connections in other cities? How has it worked?
We have not made connection in other cities at the moment. This idea came from a meeting between Andrew Ousley (formerly of Warner Classics, now president of Unison Media) and Anthony Rudel (station manager for WCRB), and grew further from the success of the recording of pianist/composer Conrad Tao’s new album Pictures.
To what extent does Warner expect to influence what we hear on the station?
We pride ourselves in being taste-makers, but our intention is not to influence what people can hear on the station. As I said, earlier this partnership involves an agreement on the content from both parties.
Would Warner have any objection if WCRB entered into this sort of partnership with other media companies?
Generally, I would say, Why not?—you know how the saying goes: “United we stand, divided we fall.” But obviously the answer would also depend on who and what the other media partners are.
(We assume this partnership has been vetted by the foundation’s vaunted legal department, since according some legal opinions, if Warner were influencing WCRB programming in areas beyond the clearly defined initiative, it might hearken back to the bad old days of payola, when record companies influenced playlists.)
It should be great local marketing to have your artists appear in Groupmuse events. Are you selecting artists who are particularly appealing to the 20-something crowd?
We are dealing with a young generation of artists, most of them born in the digital age. They all have something to say to the 20-something crowd.
How does Groupmuse tie into your strategy?
AO: The Groupmuse performances aren’t strictly an aspect of the partnership; they stem from an existing relationship they have with WCRB. But it gives our artists a chance to perform in a very different environment for a very different crowd, and it offers a Boston residents another chance to see these amazing artists … strategically, this partnership aims at building a community of young and very talented core classical artists in the US and make them known as much as we can everywhere, so when it’s possible to do Groupmuse performances as well, it clearly supports that goal.
We spoke also with Groupmuse founder Sam Bodkin:
WGBH staff puts on monthly Massivemuses, what we call our big events. They bring top young talent (Ben Beilman, Conrad Tao, the Naughton Sisters) to Fraser Studio and Groupmuse members can go and drink for free if they become $5/month supporters. Otherwise, it’s $10 at the door with free drinks.
Warner often supplies WGBH with the artists, but we have a separate relationship with them. Just a few weeks back, Tao (featured in the first Warner/WCRB partnership) put on a Massivemuse at Spectrum NYC as the launch party for his new album Pictures. Groupmusers who bought tickets to the event also received free digital copies of the recording.
Back to Warner:
BMInt: Is Warner selling classical media in a variety of formats? We have heard many predictions of the death of CDs, and have read statistics that in some months the top CD has only sold 500 copies internationally.
JR: Thankfully, there are still plenty of CDs that sell more than 500 copies internationally—we wouldn’t be here otherwise! Some markets have become more difficult than others and acts are becoming more local, and of course we are embracing all of the different formats available to make sure the music is heard by as many people as possible.
Tell us something of the history of Warner Classics. What labels are in its DNA?
The recent history of Warner Classics has seen the consolidation of the catalogs and rosters of EMI Classics, Virgin Classics, Warner Classics, Teldex, Finlandia. The two labels for frontline releases are Warner Classics (former EMI Classics) and Erato (former Virgin Classics). We currently have a roster of more than 50 exclusive artists and we have been signing more new exclusive artists than our counterparts in major companies this year.
Everyone’s getting into the music streaming business. The BSO has a very fine Pops Stream, for instance, and we don’t have to tell our readers about Pandora, Spotify, and the like, though we were intrigued to learn that Mood Media, the classical voice of shopping malls, now has Android and iPhone apps. Is this the future of informal listening? What does Warner have planned for us?
We are of course very proactive with streaming services and we are creating apps for this purpose, as it seems that this mode of ‘consuming’ information, whatever the information is, written, audio and/or video, is emerging as a predominant model.
An aside on an obscure stream:
Mood Media, a purveyor of services such as classical music designed, according to some wags, to purge shopping malls of teenagers (and motivate commerce), talked to us about their new classical and popular streams. First Anida Gurlit, senior manager of music design:
BMInt: We are particularly interested in the use of classical music in commercial backgrounds. It is said that is one way to banish teenagers from malls. But it must be more complicated than that. Mood Music’s “Ensemble” program has well-chosen, excellent performances that always lift my jaundiced mood. Please let me know how this particular channel is programmed.
AG: The strategy behind choosing the right music for a commercial space has everything to do with defining the ideal atmosphere and creating the music experience that supports the brand’s desired environment. We never aim to alienate any particular demographic, but rather to appeal to a brand’s target market.
When creating our music programs, we take great care in establishing what the overall experience should be, particularly energy and mood. This affords us a focused approach and leads us to the best selections for the program.
Next Janica Chang, music designer for Ensemble, Mezzanine, and Intermezzo:
What do you tell clients the Ensemble channel will do for them? When do you recommend Intermezzo, Mezzanine, or Arias and Overtures?
JC: Considerations taken when programming Ensemble include the size of the ensemble, the era which the piece is from, which key the piece is in and the performance itself. The goal is to create an environment that is lively without being jarring or shocking in any way, so there is a lot of thought put into evaluating the changes in dynamics within a piece of music. Performances that exude understanding of musicality, creating a lush yet intimate environment, are preferred over technicality and precision.
Mezzanine includes pieces that are familiar favorites to those who are well-versed in classical repertoire and is recommended for light classical listening. It can almost be seen as a Classical Music 101 course for audiences that are just learning about classical music. Mezzanine mirrors the experience of a classical music festival, with performances ranging from symphony orchestras to chamber groups to virtuosi.
Intermezzo is our program that features classical music from the widest variety of eras and with the most diverse instrumentation. The selection spans from very early Baroque to living composers and would be recommended for those who want to discover new classical music, whether you are a seasoned classical music pro or not.
Finally Erin Yousef, music designer for Arias & Overtures:
Classical music is sometimes thought to be stagnant, something only people of a certain age would enjoy. The reality is that the classical world is alive and well with fans spanning generations. Classical music can be a great in-store choice to draw people in and create a welcoming atmosphere.
Arias & Overtures is a celebration of opera at its finest. I curate the program to be enjoyed by both the casual opera fan and the total opera buff, including new performances and lesser-known works along with tried and true favorites. I would recommend Arias & Overtures to a client who is looking for something off the beaten path and who isn’t afraid of a little drama—it is opera, after all!
BMInt: Is there any way for individuals to subscribe?
For consumers who want to have these programs at their fingertips, please check out Mood Hear, our music streaming app.
This worked with caveats on my Android. I liked the individual performances on the Mezzanine channel particularly, and it’s ironic that this background music stream, unlike those of the some more serious classical music feeds in Boston, gives all the relevant data on what’s playing. What I did not like were the inane segues every three minutes. But who’s got a longer attention span than that while grocery shopping?