I was delighted to discover the 4/25/06 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer has finally done something which should have been done a long, long time ago…
In particular, the article, written by Inquirer music critic Peter Dobrin, reviews the orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music. Nothing exciting or revolutionary there, right? However, this review actually pioneers some frontier by allowing you to listen to the precise portions of the concert which Peter is referring to in his review.
As such, when Peter is writing about the oboist in a passage from the opening of the Firebird Suite you can actually click a link and listen to the exact same thing Peter Dobrin heard which inspired his review.
Of course, putting music online is hardly a new concept but for what ever reasons, traditional newspapers have been reluctant to take full advantage of all the online medium has to offer (that, in-and-of-itself, is a large, separate discussion). Regardless, the Philadelphia Inquirer takes the first timid step into a new era of cultural reporting which allows journalist and reader to share in the same experience.
I contacted Peter Dobrin by phone to find out some more details behind the new initiative and discovered that the Inquirer initially approached the Philadelphia Orchestra with the idea.
“This was an idea we approached the Philadelphia Orchestra with and they reacted positively but they haven’t decided to go along with it yet,” said Peter. “In the meantime, the Curtis project came along and we decided to do it with them.”
Peter went on to describe some of the frustrations he’s experienced as a classical music critic over the years and how this new initiative will go a long way toward alleviating some of those irritations.
“We started this idea up by saying to ourselves ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great to have people hear what you’re writing about’,” said Peter. “One of the handicaps for [music critics] over the last hundred years, is you can’t refer to bar numbers in your reviews so readers can reference where you’re writing about. The internet medium makes it possible to refer to very specific sections without the stumbling block of requiring a readership that has degrees in music in order to follow along.
Personally, I’m glad to see traditional media finally take some steps in a direction which takes advantage of online distribution. At the same time, there are obvious advances to be made.
For example, one of the issues I perceived in the feature was the quality of sound files. In particular, the Inquirer was using 32 kbps, 22 kHz, stereo windows media files which sound much like listening to music at telephone quality. As such, they made listening to soft passages a challenge as an audible hiss precluded the obvious solution of turning the volume up.
In order to find out how the Inquirer determined which audio format to use I contacted Chris Mills, Philadelphia Inquirer Deputy Managing Editor for Online. He explained their decision behind which audio format they used was determined mostly by the desire to make the files as accessible as possible.
“We opted for the lower-quality setting in order to make the downloads smaller, and therefore faster and easier to grab,” said Chris. “That said, we try to keep things in stereo whenever possible. The only negative feedback we’ve gotten regarding our encoding has come when we’ve produced a music clip in mono. I’d welcome your readers’ thoughts about “quality vs. downloadability” of the Curtis material. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..”
I asked Chris about the audio level and he said that he did spend some time enhancing the original audio files Curtis sent to him for the article because some of them were very soft. Chris went on to point out that the audio files used in the article were recorded by Curtis engineers using whatever resident recording equipment they have on-site. The files were then transferred to a compact disc in Windows Media 9 format and sent to him soon after the performance.
Given that this is Chris’ area of expertise at the Inquirer, I asked him what he thought about the project.
“I think it’s a natural to offer recordings for download anyway but being able to hear what a reviewer is referring to is very fresh yet every bit as natural.”
How does all of this tie into orchestra management? Simple: managers need to initiate serious talks with their respective musicians immediately. Specifically, everyone out there should be doing the following:
Form a Local Internet Oversight Committee (LIOC) if you haven’t done so already and start a sincere dialogue which addresses the relevant issues. Hammer out an agreement with your musicians now. Don’t wait and don’t be a cheapskate. Anything and everything you can do to help increase the quantity and quality of cultural discussion about your ensemble in your respective newspaper will come back tenfold. Begin lobbying your respective newspaper(s) to begin offering a service similar to that the Philadelphia Inquirer now offers for online listening. Why wait for them to do it on their own? With your luck, they’ll probably be the last traditional newspaper in the country to adopt the idea. Figure out how you’re going to record and deliver the necessary audio clips to the newspaper once they implement an online listening program. Ideally, you want to encourage your newspaper to use nothing less than a 128kb, 41kHz, stereo audio file. If you’re not fortunate enough to have a music critic who can read music, find a musician who is willing to sit down with the critic (unarmed) to help them find the passages they’re referring to in their reviews so the correct audio files can be used in the online review. If your newspaper is run by a bunch of thick-skulled administrative Neanderthals who refuse to dedicate the time and resources to add audio clips for online features, then be willing to host the files yourself and provide links to your music critic they can include in the article. If your music critic is stuck in the past and feels that the internet is the road to journalistic damnation and won’t play ball, lobby the editors to bring in another critic. Believe it or not, there’s a number of up and coming cultural journalists out there who actually own computers and use them for something besides a paperweight. They’re smart, engaging, and entertaining writers who draw their readers in with enticing written conversation. Did I mention don’t wait and don’t be a cheapskate? I did? Good. You need to hear that again.
I know everyone is busy putting together next season’s brochures, getting subscription campaigns finalized, negotiating CBA’s, and gearing up for last minute fundraising drives but hey, you didn’t think managing an orchestra would be easy, did you?
A music critic recently pointed out to me that the orchestra business and traditional newspaper journalism have a number of similarities. In this case they are both anxiously approaching the precipice of online communication hand in hand and they need all the help they can to make the leap. Once they get across, they’ll look back to discover that it was nothing but an insignificant mud puddle all along.
In the end, I’m thrilled to see the Philadelphia Inquirer take this step. They’ve been one of my favorite online newspapers for some time now. Not necessarily because of their coverage (although I do feel that Peter Dobrin is one of the best music critics in the U.S. today) but because they are one of the leaders in designing their paper to be friendly for online use. For example, if I want to find everything written by Peter Dobrin, the Inquirer maintains a special page which offers a bio, picture, and posts links to everything of his they publish: http://go.philly.com/peterdobrin
Of course, that doesn’t mean it is friendly for online use, but it’s much better than most.