Choral Music Online: A Brave New World

Distributing music online is an opportunity to reach more listeners, but the wide variety of platforms can be confusing. Consider these questions to help your chorus chart the right path.

The soundwaves of the future will increasingly travel over the web. In fact, web streaming already appears to be the wave of the present. In 2013, Nielsen reported that it increased by thirty-two percent over the previous year, totaling 118.1 billion music tracks. Thirty-one percent of Americans over the age of 12 use the streaming service Pandora each month, according to Edison Research. In March, Apple announced CarPlay—voice-controlled music- and data-sharing between iPhones and car dashboard systems. Meanwhile, at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, manufacturers rolled out a new generation of platforms that connect tablets and smartphones to home entertainment centers. 

Dramatically changing listening habits and bright, shiny new technology are bound to dazzle—or daze and confuse—any musician or music organization that makes recordings. As director of programs for the Future of Music Coalition, Jean Cook spends a lot of her time helping musicians navigate the World Wide Web. They tell her they feel overwhelmed by the choices available. “There’s just a lot of information out there about platforms and how they work. They don’t know what will apply to their situation. People just want to make sure they’re not missing out.”

Choral musicians seem more than ready to venture into the uncharted territory of Pandora, Spotify, iTunes Radio and the like. But what paths should they follow and what pace should they set? As you get ready to launch your own recordings into the brave new web world, these are some questions to consider. 

Why did you make the recording?

When clients come to him with a recording they want to distribute, that’s Andy Doe’s first question. Doe is founder of his own arts consulting firm and director of recordings and media for King’s College Cambridge. Previously he was head of classical music at iTunes and COO at Naxos Records. “What does success look like for you?” he asks. “Is it about money or reaching people?” If you want lots of people to find your recording, it might be best to put it on YouTube, he says. “Whereas if you have a product where there’s finite demand but the people who want it will want it a great deal, then choose iTunes. If you want something in between, choose Spotify. It often makes sense to do all three."

Choruses have never depended on recordings as a reliable revenue stream, and Web streaming is not about to change that. In musician case studies for the Future of Music Coalition, Cook has documented what most orchestra and chorus managers already know: unlike their pop music counterparts, classical musicians rely heavily on live performance for their income and not much at all on recordings. 

What are the options for web distribution?

In the old days, there were two ways to get recorded music before the public: record stores and radio. Now there are multiple choices, each touting advantages and sometimes cloaking complicated cost structures.

“It’s a wonderful thing for consumers,” says Doe. “And in the long run, it’ll be a wonderful thing for artists. But in the short term, they face changes to their livelihood, which is frightening.”

The Future of Music Coalition provides a breakdown of online music distribution services on its website. These online distribution platforms fall into two broad categories: digital retail downloads (which consumers can save as files and replay on their own computers or mobile devices) and Web streaming (both on-demand streaming, where the user can start and stop playback, and live or continuous streaming, which the listener joins in progress—like a radio broadcast). The Recording Industry Association of America reports that in 2013, record companies earned $2.8 billion from downloads and $1.4 billion from streaming. CDs and vinyl are still holding their own, with $2.29 billion in sales. 

In the future there will be a role for CDs, downloads, and streaming, says Doe. He’s reluctant to predict which of them, if any, will become predominant, but he believes “it’s important for anybody creating a recording to have his or her own plan for using them. They’re three different things for three different purposes.”

What approaches are choruses trying? 

Many in the music industry focus on the major commercial players in streaming, like Pandora, Spotify, and Rdio, but that can be a mistake, argues Doe. “The upside is that they have a vast audience. The downside of working with them is that there’s a vast amount of pressure on their promotional real estate, so it’s difficult to get your music on their home page.” For classical music organizations, a specialist like Naxos or the lesser-known Alexander Street Press can be a useful outlet, he says. In addition to operating a traditional record label, Naxos offers subscription, and on-demand streaming, and claims to have “the most comprehensive collection of classical music available online.” Alexander Street’s online music library is a richly supported, and correspondingly pricey, resource, says Doe.

“[Web distribution] is a wonderful thing for consumers. And in the long run, it’ll be a wonderful thing for artists. But in the short term, they face changes to their livelihood, which is frightening.” ~Andy Doe

The Phoenix Chorale’s recordings, on the Chandos label, are part of the Naxos library, and Naxos channels them to Pandora, Spotify, and other streams. The Chorale’s goal is not to make money, according to president and CEO Joel Rinsema. “Our web activity is to make our art as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.” Rinsema’s personal web activity often takes him to Spotify. “The other day I was listening to a new album by the Tenebrae Choir. Then it played an ensemble I’d never heard of.  The selection seemed to be pretty spot on. I don’t know how they do it, but the hope behind our presence on these streams is that someone will listen to something conducted by Robert Shaw and that will take them to the Phoenix Chorale.” 

Rinsema also finds his kids’ listening habits instructive. They turn to iTunes for individual tracks, not entire albums, fueling their eclectic tastes. “On their iPhone playlist they have Taylor Swift next to Ola Gjeilo. He’s extremely popular; they’ve done his music in their high school choirs. The flexibility of online channels gives us an opportunity to reach a younger generation.”

The Youth Chorale of Central Minnesota signed up with CD Baby, an online sales service that specializes in CDs and downloads by independent musicians. CD Baby makes the necessary arrangements to get the Chorale’s releases on Pandora, iTunes, and the rest, says artistic director Garrett Lathe: “If you search any streams, we’re on all of them.” Consistent with the overall recording industry trend, Lathe says his group’s income from downloads more than doubles revenue from CDs. But, he says, “it’s not something you do to build a new building; it’s a marketing thing, for sure. iTunes is becoming a way of moving ensembles up the ladder in stature.” 

Lathe’s social media strategy goes hand in hand with his approach to music distribution. “We challenge the singers to make sure they’ve shared something online every month, so our circle grows.” He’s found that sharing YouTube concert videos bolsters his efforts to build the local, St. Cloud-area audience. Instead of posting promotional teasers before concerts, the Youth Chorale puts up performance video soon after the event, which Lathe says makes sharing more likely. “If you can remind a patron what a great occasion it was and make someone who missed it wish he was there, that’s a great accomplishment.” 

Sixty miles down the road in St. Paul, Minnesota, the men’s ensemble Cantus shares the belief that online audio distribution is an important way to deepen relationships and create loyalty. Cantus focuses on “pushing out music to the audience” instead of depending on audiences to find them on the web, says Executive Director Mary Lee. Their NEA-funded media initiative features free downloads of Cantus performances, offered through SoundCloud, social media, email, and download cards the singers give away after performances. “The music is not available elsewhere,” Lee says. “It’s a wonderful way to extend the relationship after a concert. You can go and walk the dog and listen to Cantus!”

As a former producer at Minnesota Public Radio, Lee understands the potential reach of online streams, and she makes sure Pandora and Spotify get the current Cantus CDs. “But in terms of return on investment, that’s not our focus. It doesn’t build any relationships for us.” She points to a survey indicating that less than fifty percent of the Cantus audience uses a streaming service. 

"It’s a marketing thing, for sure. iTunes is becoming a way of moving ensembles up the ladder in stature.” ~Garrett Lathe

On the other hand, nearly eighty percent say they listen to MPR, and twenty percent listen to MPR’s two-year-old choral music stream. Responding to that, the Cantus media initiative includes plans to work with MPR to create programs for national and international distribution and to strengthen its presence on the MPR choral stream. 

Although radio remains a dominant audio medium, over time Doe expects more blurring of the line between radio and web streaming. And streaming already has one distinct advantage: the personalized curation that makes services like Pandora so successful. “Streaming providers realize music discovery is a crucial part of keeping people coming back and appreciating their value, and personalized curation is a massive part of streaming.”

Still, Doe would not advise choruses to abandon more traditional media just yet. “People are loyal to a single way of consuming music, whether it’s vinyl or iTunes or streaming. You have to be there in order to reach that person.” Cook, too, is cautious. “There’s a lot of shouting about the next big thing, and that’s great for people for whom it works. But the reality is, there probably aren’t millions waiting to hear about you.” She endorses “baby steps”—research-based approaches like Lee’s with Cantus. “Pay attention to what works. Find out who’s coming to your concerts and ask them where they go online. Make sure you’re servicing your current audience.”

Of all the web platforms out there, which is the most choral music-friendly?

“YouTube, hands down,” answers composer Abbie Betinis. “But that doesn’t make me happy.”

So why does Betinis use YouTube? For her and many colleagues, a rewarding Web experience has everything to do with discovery. There’s that word again. In this case, it applies not so much to hope and happenstance as to deliberate research. “That’s where conductors find stuff,” she says. On YouTube, “I see them brainstorm out loud on programs, putting together track lists with titles like ‘Possible Program for Fall.’” 

One of those track lists might have come from to Garrett Lathe. He describes himself as “the nerdiest choir director I know,” although he senses most of his colleagues are aware of YouTube’s value as a “one-stop shop” in the search for new music. He considers Pandora a close second because of its curated discovery feature. For his work in Phoenix and for his new position as artistic director of Kantorei in Denver, Rinsema uses Spotify to get a sense of what others have done with music his ensemble is preparing. 

When he’s considering a commission, Lathe says he usually starts by creating a streaming “station” or playlist devoted to that composer. “I had an Abbie Betinis channel,” he says. That habit can have a real payoff for composers, says Betinis. “One conductor listening can make a big difference when it comes to exposure. It can make the piece much more noticed and noticeable by other conductors.”

The catch is, Betinis will not get noticed unless she is credited as composer of the piece—and on some Web platforms, that doesn’t happen. The big commercial services cater to pop music fans, who tend not to expect composer identification, and they’re not sure how to handle classical conventions like movement markings. On a service like Spotify, says Betinis, it’s nearly impossible for classical and choral music lovers to find everything they’re really looking for. “You can’t search ‘Randall Thompson, Alleluia’ and get all the results that are there,” she says. So in 2012, Betinis started a petition calling on Spotify to enable composer identification and accommodate multi-movement compositions. She filed it with an online Spotify users’ group, which she says is the only way to get Spotify’s attention. The group has her request “under consideration.” 

“One conductor listening can make a big difference when it comes to exposure. It can make the piece much more noticed and noticeable by other conductors.” ~Abbie Betinis

Spotify’s practices are not unique, which is why Cook has a hard time describing any platform as choral-friendly. But she concedes that the online retailer ArkivMusic “is doing an OK job, Naxos has been a leader in making sure their catalog is on different services, and sources like CD Baby work fine.” 

If revenue is not my chorus’s goal, do I still need to know how the money flows?

Yes, because others probably have an ownership stake in your recorded performance. If you don’t pay attention, music publishers like Abbie Betinis may come after you (in the nicest possible way).

If she does, she’s probably seen a performance you posted on YouTube. Despite its choral-friendliness, “I can’t really shake the fear of putting so much free content there,” she says, “and so much is not attributed.” She says she spends a day a month Googling to locate compositions that have been uploaded without attribution. When she finds them on a platform like YouTube, she sends “nice notes” to the conductors or audience members responsible, asking them to give her credit.

“I like that people are sharing my music,” she says. “I really, really like that, and I understand they’re not doing it out of malice.” If she seems tenacious, it’s because experience tells her attribution offers composers and publishers the only potential they have to make money. The exposure can lead to sheet music sales, and YouTube is reportedly working on ways to share ad revenue with publishers and others who have a stake in performance videos.

Betinis suspects most conductors haven’t been taught the importance of copyright. Complicating matters further, streaming has brought performers into the rights mix, too, entitling them to payments they do not get for radio broadcasting. On top of that, multiple, complex provisions regulate the ways the money flows for each Web platform. 

It’s easy to get lost in the “Wild West” of online distribution, Cook realizes. She advises choral organizations not to go there. Instead, she says, trust a “middleman” who already knows the territory—someone involved in negotiating the rates artists get paid. That can be a performing rights organization—such as ASCAP or BMI for publication rights and SoundExchange for recording rights—or it can be a union—AFM, AGMA, or AFTRA. Although they are most accountable to their members, these organizations benefit benefit choruses and others making recordings by taking responsibility for finding and compensating artists entitled to payment.

For choruses such as the Phoenix Chorale, a record label can be an even more helpful intermediary. In some cases self-producing and self-distributing may make sense, says Rinsema. But Naxos handles most of his ensemble’s releases because not only are they plugged into digital distribution channels, they can also manage rights payments “with the push of a button.” Cook suggests that “the conversation should be less about where the money goes and more about who’s looking out for me. In those places, the middlemen are really the musicians’ friends.” 

What does the future look like for choral music online?

Wearing her composer hat, Betinis is excited about the future. She believes curated discovery holds tremendous potential for choral music to reach new audiences. But her publisher side “just cringes and grins and bears it. I love and want to be part of it, but I’m worried about it.” If the Web users who post her music “can be mindful of the creator, even if they’re not always perfect about getting rights, then it’s gonna be OK.” 

Speaking from the consumer’s standpoint, Doe believes “there’s never been a better time to like music that’s not universally popular.” For specialized interests like choral music, he says the age of the computer promises better ways to serve fans. “If you’re on the net, you hear a piece you love, and you want to go down a rabbit hole, there’s nothing stopping you; the sum of all knowledge is at your fingertips.” Because of its long tradition, sacred vocal music may offer the curious fan more rewards than any other form, Doe suspects. “The choral tradition in general is a living, breathing art form that has been innovating since the beginning of written music. Most people realize it’s important to keep doing that today.”

Other Resources:

The Artists Revenue Streams Presentation from the Future of Music Coalition explains the structures that determine the rates artists get paid for three specific digital revenue streams: iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify.

Composer Abbie Betinis has developed a Conductor's Flow Chart for New Music Programming that takes a step-by-step approach to best practices for a variety of music usages.

This "Copyright Demystified" special report from Musical America includes the top ten myths of music copyright.

Don Lee is a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Previously at NPR in Washington DC, he was the executive producer of Performance Today.


This article was adapted from The Voice, Summer 2014.