Monday, March 18, 2013

Can CBC Music Adequately Replace Mobile Symphonic Recordings?

Can CBC Music Adequately Replace Mobile Symphonic Recordings?
by Merrie Klazek

Editor's note: This article, written by Merrie Klazek, was originally published under the title Sustainability in the Face of Funding Cuts: What It Means for the CBC and for Us. It appeared in the November 2012 edition of Una Voice, the newsletter of the Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians.

The Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra

It would not surprise me if Chris Boyce and Marc Steinmetz from CBC Radio hesitated before stepping into the conference room at the Hyatt Regency last August to talk to the OCSM representatives from across the country about why live music remotes are becoming (or for most of us have already become) a distant  memory. It was a bit like being thrown to the lions, and so first off I commend them for braving the storm and doing their best to explain to us how they are approaching the challenge of sustaining the CBC through significant government cutbacks.

The concerns that we musicians have surrounding the CBC’s dramatic shift in programming and fund allocation over the past several years are varied and strong. As it should be with anything precious to us, we are passionate and emotional when given the opportunity to tell the ‘powers that be’ our perception of the losses we have experienced. As listeners, we have a loss of quality classical music programming, as musicians trying to make a living we have a loss of revenue from broadcasts, as Canadians we have a loss of what we viewed as a connector, creating ties that gave us a glimpse of the activities of our colleagues across the country. I believe that these losses and perceptions are real, but change is inevitable and all sides would likely agree that it is not ideal. The goal of their presentation was not so much to field our impassioned questions as it was to give some insight into the new directions for the CBC. I will give an overview of the important points to that effect, supporting with facts and figures, but will inevitably expose my position that they have, in some areas, thrown the baby out with the bath water. Adjusting to changing climates and tastes is just smart business, but adjustment in this case bears some similarities to total wipe out.

Each year the federal budget is announced and it is no secret that the CBC doesn't expect any increases from our current government. Lay offs of over a dozen engineers and producers as well as the closing of numerous stations across the country didn't seem to ‘‘cut it’’ when trying to accommodate decreasing funds, so the directors of CBC decided to pursue advertising, and serious cuts to live music. Both of these ideas leave a bad taste for musicians, who have long thought of the CBC as being on the same team as us, providing a joint-effort product to Canadians. This coexistence is not a reality any more.

Reducing the number of mobiles for the broadcasting company translates into saving millions of dollars. The directors spoke of the benefits of the more portable, and therefore cheaper, technology: what once needed a large bus of equipment now needs a van. They assured us that this is not the end of live recording, but we can see that it is the end of live recording as we knew it. Their focus for the remaining live recording budget will be on ‘‘unique programs and performances’’ with a desire to have more of a ‘‘creator /producer’’ role, rather than simply documenting concerts.

The disturbing implication is that they have little interest in music for its own sake, and seem to have the notion that they can make the music more interesting and exciting for listeners by creating the projects themselves. Personally,  I can think of nothing more interesting or exciting than a great performance of a Brahms Symphony that makes you pull your car over and just listen. It appears that if we find ourselves engaged by the CBC, it will likely be a gig of a very specific nature that they want to be identified with, involving collaboration and ‘‘relevant contemporary appeal.’’ If this is their position, I question their repeated use of the word ‘‘curator,’’ as the role of a curator is implicitly temporary and therefore must respect the history and roots of an organization, while putting a new spin on things.

HPO Youth Orchestra
Spectator photo
I do however understand that changes needed to be made, as over half of the CBC’s budget was devoted to live music before the cuts, which was not in keeping with consumption. Some stats: last year 230 concerts were recorded, this year under 100; last year 30 orchestra concerts were recorded, this year under 5. Incidentally, they had entered into a live recording agreement with the CBC, but the agreement was discontinued this season because the terms offered were even lower than the compromises previously agreed to, and none of the unions involved could accept them. Regarding advertising, this is likely another downhill slope, as they will not have a lot of say over content. Advertising changes will depend on the licensing renewal hearing this month.

We all identify with the loss of quality classical music programming. When asked about this, and the ‘dumbing-down’ of the thin shards of classical programming that remain, their response referred to an IPSOS survey which showed that there has been a major shift in music consumption with fragmentation of listeners into small niches. They spoke of their product remaining unique and that listeners are hearing what other radio stations are not providing. This has not been my experience, as it sometimes feels like they took one of those fragmented niches and catered everything to it.

However, something positive has come out of their study and efforts, and I am genuinely excited about it. With terrestrial radio frequencies being saturated, the obvious next step was turning to the internet, and CBC music was created. With this service, the music you want to hear is available to you anytime. Launched last February, CBC Music has had a very positive response. Visitors can create their own profile with their favourite genres and performing ensembles. The idea is to build vibrant communities around genres on this free streaming radio with videos, recorded music, concerts, and play lists. Of particular relevance to us is the classical page, which hosts 10 channels of classical music ‘‘programmed by experts,’’ as well as live ‘‘Concerts on Demand.’’ Interestingly, they told us that classical music has received the most hits since the site’s inception.

Of more relevance to us however, is the artists’ component of CBC Music where you can sign up as a listener or a musician. The Music artist page allows you to create a profile that can have recordings,  videos, links to fan’s profiles, concert calendar, links to any CBC Music podcasts or videos that you are in, and more. Several orchestras are already on board with CBC Music. It is highly accessible even for neophytes like me. I recommend chatting with your management about creating or enhancing and updating a profile for your orchestra. Amidst the disappointments of the changing industry of live recording and radio, we can still remain true to our art and generate excitement around our classical music community on forums that do exist.