A few months ago, with little fanfare, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra entered the 21st century.
It was a small yet important step: a handful of free recordings, available for streaming, buried within the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts' Web site. The pieces, which include John Cage's "Credo in US," George Crumb's "Black Angels" and Steve Reich's "Different Trains," are from the Foundation's winter "Portrait Concert Series" and mark the symphony's first, albeit tentative, foray into online digital music distribution.
The move comes after a string of symphonies across the nation, including the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, have begun offering recent and archival recordings online via iTunes, MP3 downloads and streaming media. Last month the Chicago Symphony Orchestra entered the fray.
"I expect that sometime next season, we'll begin to experiment with some initial releases," says Robert McGrath, vice president and orchestra manager for the Saint Louis Symphony. McGrath says the goal is to offer its music not only on iTunes, but in other online music stores as well. The initial performances, he adds, will likely be culled from current SLSO music director David Robertson's critically acclaimed first two seasons.
"Unfortunately," says McGrath, "all that costs money. No orchestra that I know of is actually making money on any commercial release, even those who are selling on iTunes."
For an orchestra that has experienced lean times in recent years, investing money in digital sales is secondary to keeping the symphony fiscally afloat. Still, says McGrath, going digital might serve to increase the symphony's visibility and offer aural proof of the organization's vitality.
In the age of the LP and in the early years of the compact disc, the Saint Louis Symphony released its music through a deal with, among others, RCA/Red Seal. That arrangement put the orchestra and its then-conductor, Leonard Slatkin, in the international spotlight and provided the company a level of prestige.
As sales of classical music declined through the 1980s and '90s, the symphony lost the label deal. In the late '90s SLSO sold its music through its own imprint, Arch Media, and still retains the rights to the name. But for the past decade, the symphony hasn't released any recordings.
"We are very much interested in getting our product out there for release in one format or another local radio, national radio, physical CDs but particularly online," says McGrath.
Julia Kirchhausen, vice president of public relations for the American Symphony Orchestra League, says digital distribution is here to stay.
"There's terrific potential for us to really be known and have audiences well beyond our concert halls," she says. "This is new territory for us, and something that we're only starting to comprehend, because it's so new in our industry."
If online sales prove to be profitable, the Saint Louis Symphony is poised to dip into a virtual treasure trove; its archives are deep, containing recordings of every single subscription-concert-series performance since the company moved into Powell Hall in 1968.
But, cautions McGrath, it remains to be seen whether there is enough demand for the material. Although orchestras such as the Milwaukee Symphony are on the cutting edge and offer for-sale recordings of recent concerts on a regular basis (at $4.99 per performance through their Web site), McGrath is not fully convinced of the business plan.
"From my standpoint," he says, "it has yet to be proven whether theirs is a viable model in the long run, in terms of what the interest or demand is to making that entire archive available."