Yesterday, I received a mahoosive box from the Berlin Phil, containing the best poster an orchestra has ever made, a copy of this season’s program, and a season pass for the Digital Concert Hall – a streaming video service that lets you watch live and archived performances from the Philharmonie.

I was mostly excited about the poster until I tried the video thing. Now I’m totally hooked.

When I heard about the Digital Concert Hall, I dismissed it as doomed to failure. It’s expensive (about $200) and it’s streaming, so you’re tethered to your computer. Other people have tried similar things, and they’ve failed to acquire a critical mass of customers. This one isn’t even that easy to use. It seemed to me that the Berlin Phil’s entire plan marketing plan was to be the Berlin Phil. Now that I’ve spent an afternoon in the office being serenaded by what might very well be the best orchestra in the world – playing exactly what I want them to – I’m starting to wonder if that might be enough.

They really are very good.

Here’s the thing:

I eat pasta from Italy, strawberries from Mexico and cheese from England. My computer was made in China, my shirt in Morrocco, my watch in Switzerland and my car in Sweden. In this global economy, live orchestral music is one of the few locally produced commodities that I consume.

Until now, it has been cheaper to do it that way. It would add about a 1000% to the price of the concert ticket to fly me to Germany and a 100% to every ticket to fly the orchestra to California. Driving for ninety minutes to see the San Francisco Symphony was both the cheapest and easiest way for me to hear live music.

As I’ve written before, going to Davies Symphony Hall isn’t always cheap, easy, or satisfying. Suddenly, there’s a much better orchestra, their concerts start and end at convenient times, and they deliver – to my house and my office.

What does this mean?

The technology that allows me to experience a concert live from Berlin is pretty good. The DCH uses H.264 video and AAC audio – the same codecs that you’d get from iTunes, but with the option of higher bitrates. They haven’t over-engineered the sound or got carried away with video direction – the sound is like sitting in the hall, and the view is rather better. It isn’t a perfect reproduction of a live performance but it’s better than Hulu, it works, and it will improve.

As technology erodes the distinction between live and recorded performances, local venues will have to adapt. Their edge over Berlin is no longer convenience. They might want to work on that, but their USP is the excitement of a genuinely live, in-person experience.

Just imagine you run a suburban American pizza restaurant, and one day some crazy fool starts delivering much better real Italian pizzas, flown in from Naples at the speed of light, and delivered to your customers’ doors, for a tenth of the price of a sit-down meal at your establishment.

You’d have to find a way to make your restaurant a fun place to hang out, or you’d be in real trouble.



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  1. February 24, 2010

    “reall Italian pizzas”? But you’d just described the audio compression. That says frozen pizza to me. However good the pizza was before they froze it.

    (Of course any diner can tell a frozen pizza from a fresh one. Pity more listeners don’t care about the audio equivalent.)

    • properdiscord #
      February 24, 2010

      I like the frozen pizza analogy. I’m not sure I agree with where you go with it, though.

      The audio is compressed, but not much. You can pack fresh fish in ice without calling it frozen.

      People often describe CDs as a lossless format – as if somebody drew a line in the sand and said “this information is all that’s required to perfectly reproduce sound”. That’s simply not the case. Considerably more information is thrown away in mixing and mastering than is lost when you go from CD to 320kb/s AAC. All recording formats represent a compromise of convenience and fidelity. It’s the reason people didn’t put 1/4″ reel-to-reel tape decks in cars, and SACD represents a tiny proportion of the recorded music market.

      As you concede, most people don’t care enough about compression to forgo the convenience it delivers. In time, lower bandwidth and storage costs will mean that there’s only a marginal cost in pleasing customers with your exacting standards. Until then, you’re lucky that you live closer to Berlin than I do.

  2. TV #
    February 24, 2010

    One of the reasons I was skeptical about the streaming service is who really wants to be tethered to a computer? Not only that, but who are they actually going to get to pay $200? Streaming subscription services are already struggling to convince consumers to pay $10/month! I know I still haven’t paid yet to take off the advertising.

    I will definitely be interested to see if the virtual concert venue has any staying power. If anyone can do it, certainly it’s the Berlin Phil!

    • properdiscord #
      February 24, 2010

      Pricing something like this is always difficult. In the absence of direct competition, what do you compare it to? Would twice as many people pay half as much? You can buy a single concert quite inexpensively if that’s all you want. The subscription is something of a luxury.

      They’ve built something simple and reliable. In ecommerce, two hurdles remain:

      1) Get people to try it

      2) Get people to pay anything at all for it

      Would dropping the price to $1 result in >20,000% increase in sales? Probably not. Even if it did, would that be the right move?

      The comparison to other streaming subscription services is an interesting one. They offer almost every record ever released for about the same price or less.

    • Anonymous #
      March 2, 2010

      I have a season pass to Berlin Phil. It is amazing – believe me, us musicians want it! A fabulous privilege – doesn’t stop me going out or eating pizza fresh/frozen. Musicians are more concerned with interpretation than nerdy soundloss questions. You make up for that loss inside your head with your inner ear.

  3. Anonymous #
    March 4, 2010

    I too have a season pass and can say without hesitation that DCH is the most exciting thing in classical music on the web. Quite simply, it needs to be experienced to be believed. Sound and picture are like nothing else and anyone remotely interesting in what the Berliners have to say – along with some stunning guest artists and conductors – week in and week out – should sign themselves up or give this as a gift. As to sound quality, I would defy anyone to tell me that it’s less than ideal. As far as being tethered to a computer, you’re not, as long as you have a TV with working speakers. And as for compression, pointing out the sound limitations is like criticising the Sistine Chapel for the chipped paint in the men’s bathroom.

  4. March 4, 2010

    > As to sound quality, I would defy anyone to
    > tell me that it’s less than ideal.

    It’s less than ideal.

    There you go.🙂

    Well come on, it just _is_, isn’t it. It would be on a CD too by the way. Ideal is in the hall in a good seat with quiet but attentive neighbours whose complicity helps raise the event to be everything a concert can be, let’s save the word for what it means.

    And compression isn’t chipped paint in the gents, it’s seeing the ceiling, well, on a computer screen.

    • properdiscord #
      March 4, 2010

      Let’s be realistic. It’s not the same as being there. It’s not a substitute for being there – but if you can’t be there, you still might prefer it to being somewhere else with a less excellent orchestra.

  5. dorisb #
    September 1, 2010

    i have had a season subscription to the Boston Symphony for
    15+ years. I love going there and listening to a live performance.
    Unfortunately I am not able to go all the time due to elder care responsibilities although I continue my subscription. I also really enjoy watching other great orchestras and make a point to do so whenever I am able.
    i tried the Digital Concert Hall and loved it. Is it being there? No. but is it a great experience? Yes. I have a high speed internet connection and a great computer screen with really good speakers and I am sure that helps. But a huge amount of credit goes to the Berlin Philharmonic for doing this so well both in the sound and in the visual aspects. I signed up for the year and am really looking forward to it.

    Look at what the Met is doing now in opera and on the web. The price to go to New York, stay at a hotel, and go to the Met used be doable several times a year. Now the price is off the charts. The met showings in the theatre are doing really well and are attracting people who have never been to the opera before and hopefully making them want to see it in person if there is a local company. The met too has an online version.

    It will never replace the experience of sitting in the audience watching any live musical performance but it is a great alternative when you can’t be there in person.

  6. November 20, 2010

    your anology is unique.. i came accross it looking for pizza recipes to try in the uk. great read and interesting.

  7. May 19, 2011

    Appreciate the discussion. Perhaps this is a long-dead thread. Just to point out that many seats in most concert halls also have “less than ideal” sound quality for many reasons. Distance, acoustical distortion, room noise, etc.. Practically any modern recording, and I’m assuming the DCH, is higher-fi than most of the symphonic tickets sold all around the world. Directional tone color is mostly lost on recording and some interesting large-room acoustical phenomena (a big part of what makes symphonic music fun?) don’t happen at home, but that’s about it. As a musician, when I’m an audience member, I’m much more frequently frustrated with live sound than recorded.

  8. Didier Taradoncio #
    December 17, 2012

    Hello. I just found out I have a month worth of DCH since I own a Sony TV, and I’m blown away by the experience. I connected my TV directly to the internet, and I hooked up the otical audio out from my TV to my Rotel receiver. The whole experience has been very satisfying indeed, a lot more than I previously thought. I’m picky with sound quality, and this sounds exactly like a commercially bought DVD, with the added bonus of a high def image. The concerts and interviews provide long hours of extreme fun. I still think it’s way too expensive to subscribe for a year, though, at 149 Euro. I would pay up to 50 gladly, but 149 is unreal, at least for us 3rd world country folks.

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