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Classical music in the digital age

Did you know that Christoph Lieben-Seutter, the Artistic Director of the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, has a knack for technology? We sat down with him to understand how digitalisation impacts the classical music industry in 2018. Could blockchain technology change the way artists are being paid? Does a concert experience get richer if you educate yourself online first? And can digitalisation help to attract new audiences?




You started your career in Vienna where you worked as a software engineer and marketing assistant at Philips. Does this technical background influence you in your current role?
That was the Stone Age of computing. Back then I was curious whether I had the right mindset to enter the world of machines. I loved writing small programs, so I started to study information technology. After only a few months, however, I was offered a permanent position and left university. So years ago I entered the digital world, but my real passion was always music.

From this early ‘infection’ I just kept a keen interest in new technology. I am still an early adopter who is interested in new features, ideas, software, and in seeing how they can improve my and our lives.

What comes to your mind when addressing the digitalisation of the classical music industry?
One of my main responsibilities is to put myself in the shoes of our customers to see how the Elbphilharmonie and our programme appear from the outside. First of all we use digital communication channels because we want you to develop the desperate need to visit us and experience a concert.

Additionally, we aim at conveying the image of a high-quality, innovative but friendly institution. This means that we would like to make our audience open to new experiences. We are not so fond of presenting what you expect, such as for example stars who do exactly the same as what they do elsewhere. On the contrary we want you to come here, see this fantastic building and say, “Let’s see what they offer. I do not know this artist yet, but I’m still going to try it.” Then we want to surprise you with a great artistic experience.

There is another important aspect. One of the problems of classical music compared to other genres such as pop is that the artists still seem to be a little distant, not very approachable. Now, through digitalisation, at least the new generation of artists is getting used to being in contact with the audience: they share their day on social media, upload talks on YouTube etc. All in all I believe that cultural institutions and artists establishing themselves on our personal news flow is very helpful to sustain a music life.

You mentioned that you are interested in new technology. Can you think of something that would be useful for the Elbphilharmonie?
The big hype at the moment is blockchain. From my perspective there are two parts about it that are interesting.

I have recently been thinking “What if you can establish a direct transaction that cannot be falsified between the customer and the artist?” This would help artists tremendously in terms of how they get paid. Will royalties soon be a relict? With these new kinds of technology the artists could be paid without having record companies and other layers in between.

Another issue for us is ticketing. What we observe at the Elbphilharmonie is a second market for ticketing: people buy them at the original price and sell them on the internet for completely inflated prices – sometimes up to 20 times higher. These people make money – but not on behalf of the artists or at least the company that produces everything. This problem may be circumvented if we had a technology that makes the transfer of a ticket to the audience targeted, secure, and inalterable.

One of the many advantages of the Internet is its educational usage. Is the Elbphilharmonie active in this realm?
The world of classical music is so complex, so deep, and has such an extensive history… there is so much information you could convey. This is the reason why we developed a ‘Blog & Streams’ section on our website.

I would like our readers and visitors to think “Actually, who is this guy Tchaikovsky? Where did he live, when did he live, what was the cultural context in which he wrote these compositions I am going to listen to?” Or “What kind of instrument is this? How did they compose music in the 17th century?”. The whole ‘Blog and Streams’ section of our website aims at diving deeper into this field of information. Sometimes you will only find an article, but we also have great photo collections, audio recordings, and videos from concerts. We film the concerts secretly once or twice a month with eight remotely controlled cameras and stream them live on this website.

Of course it is not necessary to be educated. You should always be able to simply listen and enjoy a concert. But the experience gets richer if you know more about it.

Does it work?
Yes, it does. Especially the views of the video streams are very high. Still, we see that people tend to revert to topics and artists they already know. A concert with a popular programme obviously gets much more views than a concert with a less known or more advanced composer. Therefore I see the need to connect the worlds better. We want to make people who are only interested in the big stars more curious about other artists and genres as well. We are working on this.

Is ’digital’ enough to attract audiences? Gabriel Prokofiev is a British composer, producer, DJ and Artistic Director of the Neoclassical record label and club night. Apparently it is his objective to make classical music as popular as the visual arts.
It is interesting that you ask this question as we will host Mr. Prokofiev at the Elbphilharmonie soon. He aims at making classical music more approachable for people who might have no connection to this style of music by for example mixing it with techno. His projects are a great way to attract new audiences, but they are not a replacement for the original genre. The same holds true for the digital music channels: there is nothing that can replace the live experience.

Main image: copyright Thies Raetzke