In the past, members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra had a double income, receiving a salary from the government, and also taking home royalties from records they made.
These were the glory days, when under conductor Herbert von Karajan CDs became more popular, and the orchestra released its entire repertoire including Mr. Karajan’s meticulously staged video recordings.
The CDs sold so well that young players look at the senior members of the orchestra with envy. Many of them were able to retire to the upscale suburbs of southwestern Berlin.
Nowadays, younger musicians, part of a generation used to downloading music, can't hope to receive royalties. Listeners needn't buy CDs because they can stream what they want to listen to.
"In ten years living rooms won’t have CD racks anymore," said Olaf Maninger, the orchestra’s media representative, adding that in the future, people might only buy music made by the Phil's own label, high quality recordings which come in a hardback case, packaged in linen. "People enjoy watching them just as much as they like to listen to them," he said.
It's a challenge for the orchestra as the business becomes more uncertain, though. Nowadays music has become one art form that's most available – listeners can access well-recorded performances almost whenever they please, for very little money.
Two years ago, the Berlin Phil took the step of setting up its own label, “Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings.”
First they released the recording of Schumann's symphonies, conducted by Simon Rattle.
Next, they released a Schubert song cycle conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, along with DVDs of "The Magic Flute" and Bach’s “Passions.”
On Sibelius’ 150th birthday, the Phil released a complete recording of his work, again conducted by Sir Rattle.
This coming weekend, to commemorate former conductor Claudio Abbado two years after his death, the Phil will release "The Last Concert," a recording of Mr. Abbado’s final work with the orchestra.
Unlike music labels running a business for profit, the Philharmonics can spoil their customers.
Listeners of the newest release won’t just get a standard CD recording of Mr. Abbado’s farewell, they also get a Blue-Ray video they can listen to in "Pure Audio" with the right equipment, and a download code leading to further content. Buyers also get a booklet with an essay and an introduction to Mr. Abbado’s work in German and in English, as well as numerous pictures. Some show scenes from the director’s life outside the concert hall, playing soccer and table tennis with fellow musicians or at his favorite pub "A Muntagnola," an Italian trattoria in Berlin’s Schöneberg district.
Mr. Abbado's work with the Berlin Phil in 2013 brought Romanticism to life, its darker and lighter sides.
In Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy's music accompanying Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," he showed the era’s cheer in a light-hearted score that ushered fairies and elves across the stage, in a magical world of idealized antiquity.
In Hector Berlioz’s autobiographical "Symphonie fantastique,” the audience joined the composer on a journey into a dark abyss, exploring the tensions between love and creative angst, in opium-induced frenzies and feverish fantasies and staging that spanned gleaming ballrooms of Paris and medieval executions and witch hunts.
With acute sensitivity, Mr. Abbado brought characters to life and connected with the orchestra as they played. Thanks to modern sound quality, listeners can experience the concert exactly as it was in the comfort of their homes – thanks to a technical feature called "Digital Concert Hall," or DCH.
It wasn't the Berlin Phil's first venture into the new digital landscape. In 2008, the Philharmonics set up their own television channel. Many thought they were crazy – except Deutsche Bank, the orchestra’s main sponsor, which agreed to pay for the channel until it broke even. Back then the donors probably didn't know that it would take six years to become financially sustainable – even with the orchestra's big name and fame. The TV station is still running, and this year, fans worldwide can enjoy 39 concerts streamed online, filmed from ten different camera angles.
But being modern brings its own problems. The Digital Concert Hall’s sound quality is so advanced that unfortunately, only listeners with state of the art equipment can fully reap the benefits. Only the few who have the right devices can use their computers or app-enhanced televisions to create the illusion of actually being at the Philharmonic.
The business isn't profitable. But it is an investment in the orchestra's artistic immortality.
Aside from live concerts, the music industry’s future is still a huge question mark. By creating a brand, the Philharmonic is creating its digital future. Their goal is to shape their own artistic legacy, independent of public radio stations and record label conglomerates.
"With DCH and Berliner Philharmonic Recordings, we're creating an archive that the orchestra members of future generations can use," said Mr. Maninger, the orchestra's media manager.
People who join the Digital Concert Hall can already enjoy an extensive collection, accessed with an annual pass or a seven-day subscription. Listeners can pick one of seven interpretations of Johannes Brahms's 4th Symphony, choosing between recordings by Mr. von Karajan, Jiri Belohlavek, and Andris Nelsons, as well as Mr. Rattle's interpretations from 2008, 2011, and 2014.
The library also contains numerous documentaries, like Wim Wenders' film series "Cathedrals of Culture" and also individual dance projects and family concerts.
It's a brave attempt to navigate a changed musical landscape. And it's having an effect, as principle cellist Ludwig Quandt discovered while waiting on a train station in a provincial Japanese town. Two excited girls with instrument cases on their backs came running up to him and asked him for an autograph.
This article originally appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]