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The Renault Magazine: The Free Tenors
…or access all arias. The internet is music to the ears of classical, opera and jazz fans, who can now download the work of their favourite artists and keep their notes in their pockets.

Statistics are one thing – despite the hype, only about 3% of worldwide music sales are actually of classical recordings – but there’s no arguing with the facts, and when an international performer of Placido Domingo’s standing says he is joining the cyberspace revolution, it’s clearly time to sit up and take notice.

In fact, the famous tenor’s surprise announcement last year that he would be joining the board of London-based Global Music Network could not have come at a better time. When it comes to non-bricks-and-mortar sales, classical music sales are closer to 20% of the total, and as one of the first companies to see a future in combining classical music and the hi-tech benefits of internet delivery, the founders of have seen their new company blossom in just a matter of months.

What last year was just ‘five guys running round in circles’ has this year become the world’s leading website for classical, opera and jazz. The five, including internationally renowned musicians David Atherton and Peter Donohoe, internet entrepreneur Mike Lubin and independent record producer Steve Long, were well aware of the limitations of the conventional record industry in terms of bringing the widest possible range of artists and performances to the largest number of listeners – particularly when it came to classical recordings.

Keen to maximise their profits in this sector of the market, many of the big-name labels have devoted increasingly large slices of their budgets to ever smaller numbers of star performers. At the same time the average record shop now finds itself unable to stock any more than a tiny percentage of the many thousands of records produced and sold each year.

GMN’s solution was a grand plan to create a sophisticated new multimedia website designed to bring together the widest possible range of artists into one ‘family’ of performers and to make their performances – recorded and live – available, free of charge, to enthusiasts around the world.

According to Senior Vice President, Steve Long, Lubin and the two musicians originally conceived the site as merely a non-profit promotional tool posting concert dates and other information onto the web so fans could track the musicians whose work they admired. In true internet style, though, things quickly developed from that simple idea as burgeoning new technology made possible the dream of ‘illustrating’ the diary with recordings of particular artists’ musical repertoires. These recordings could then be downloaded onto the PC at home via an ordinary telephone line – and if that was possible, then why not issue bespoke CDs as well?

Obviously, the key to the scheme’s success lay not just with the new technology but with the artists themselves, so with pianist Donohoe and world-class conductor Atherton already on board, GMN set out to recruit as much talent and as quickly as possible from its offices in central London, New York, San Diego and Hong Kong.

Respected artists such as the Kirov Orchestra and the Hong Kong Philharmonic were soon signed up, along with the London Chamber Orchestra and the Philharmonia, a dozen or more top soloists, even the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge.

There are some top-flight jazzers in there too – including Louis Armstrong, Dave ‘Take Five’ Brubeck, sax player Michael Brecker, pianist Billy Taylor and the legendary Count Basie Orchestra. Also vocalist Stacey Kent and her ensemble, whose high-profile fans include fellow Americans Bill Gates and Clint Eastwood. The focus, says Long, is still primarily on classical music, but jazz is rapidly developing and there are also plans to move into world music, theatre, ballet and other visual and performing arts so that in time each will have its own area of the site.

Originally, the company was looking to recruit a family of only six artists, then 25; to date it’s already 70-plus artists, orchestras, ensembles, festivals and venues with many more waiting to sign up. To handle all this the site itself is a sophisticated one and includes not just exclusive live performances but also video interviews with many of the performers, lectures on related subjects and concert recitals from around the world.

At the same time GMN’s clever multimedia programming means surfers can listen to the performances, watch videos and read all about the music and soloists all at the same time. And, of course, then buy a particular recording online should they decide they wish to hear it all again.

To join in the fun costs nothing, but you need some pretty advanced kit to play, including a good connection, a fast processor, an up-to-date web-browser and the sort of software required to effectively stream audio and video signals.

But do give it a go because most of the recordings and sessions available on the site are exclusive to GMN so you won’t find them anywhere else. Examples in recent months have included the baritone Sergei Leiferkus at London’s Wigmore Hall, the Philharmonia Orchestra from the Royal Festival Hall, the famous St Petersburg White Nights Festival, the Mainly Mozart Festival direct from San Diego and, closer to home, a number of exclusive recordings from the Wardour Festival.

In other words, top events, top performers – Jose Carreras is another recent signing, so two out of three isn’t bad – and top repertoire. And, best of all, you don’t have to pay the company a single penny to hear any of it. In addition, because of the nature of almost instantaneous electronic communications, the company is confident the site will continue to deliver exactly what the listeners ask for.

“The beauty of the internet”, says Long, “is that we can get feedback from the audience immediately and respond just as quickly. If a lot of people send us emails saying they enjoyed Singer A or Soloist B we can not only immediately schedule more performances featuring that musician or ensemble but also offer fully licensed recordings to those same customers and even link up with the artist’s own management company to secure future live appearances.”

You might have imagined all this new technology would be the natural preserve of the young, with their fast-changing musical likes and dislikes and apparently innate understanding of new gadgetry. But in fact, according to Long, the demographics of the more mature classical music listener make them perfect for exploring this new medium. Classical music fans, he says, generally have more money to spend than average as well as a proven willingness to experiment.

Add that to the generally accepted view that every 100 days the number of people using the internet doubles, and you begin to understand how it is that within just weeks of setting up shop the company could report that almost 10,000 listeners around the world had logged-on to a GMN-hosted concert from the Haydn Festival at Eisenstadt.

In fact, there are currently more than 100,000 users registered with the site and more than 300,000 regular users – numbers that are increasing on a daily basis.

The convenience factor is obvious – we can’t all travel the globe when we want to, and not every concert performance eventually makes it on to CD – but the website is also fun and educational in the best possible sense of the word. Most of all, though, it is the future. We have heard it, and it works. And with more artists and orchestras signing up every month, looks very much like the sound of things to come.

Sam Franks

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