Inside the Berlin Phil’s Digital Concert Hall

Berlin Philharmonic’s Tobias Möller tells Maria Roberts how the orchestra built its pioneering online concert hall

With every angle covered, from sold-out tours to audience-grabbing broadcasts and education projects, all steered by beloved artistic director Simon Rattle, it’s hard to imagine what one of world’s most prestigious orchestras could possibly do to increase its popularity. You’d be forgiven for thinking Berlin Philharmonic might take some time to rest on its laurels, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. But in addition to its pioneering Digital Concert Hall, the progressive German orchestra is now entering a league of its own with the launch of new in-house label, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings.

Tobias Möller is the Berlin Philharmonic’s director of online communications and is also responsible for marketing the orchestra’s media products. Möller studied musicology at university and has worked in the record business for 20 years as a communications and marketing specialist. Prior to joining the orchestra, he worked for TV production company EuroArts and with a particular interest in classical music, he’s well suited to bringing the phil’s strategy together.

Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall
Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall

With Möller on board, subscription channel Digital Concert Hall has broken new ground in paid-for content. Launched in 2008, the team has held firm in its belief that high-quality recordings can command a premium price – a breakaway from the free-for-all culture that has seen rapid-fire content posted on vlogs, blogs and platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo.

‘Our online engagement figures are impressive,’ Möller says matter-of-factly. ‘The Digital Concert Hall now has an aggregated community of 450,000 registered users. We have reached almost 700,000 likes on Facebook and the YouTube channel has had 30 million hits. It is a business in its own right, because our concerts here in Berlin and on tour are sold out anyway.’

He adds that the digital strategy and own-label recordings have the capacity to takeBerlin Philharmonic to a larger audience. ‘We have a worldwide following of people who would never have the chance to go to a concert. The live-streamed concerts enable enthusiastic music lovers to come from anywhere, and to see what’s going on at the orchestra. It’s been a great opportunity for us, and has always been about enabling more people to be able to attend [even if they’re not physically in the room].’

Read: Digital Theatre redefines how we view the arts

The impressive archives on the Digital Concert Hall website are vast; visitors are given the opportunity to choose exactly what they want to watch by selecting, for example, a specific conductor, repertoire and year. A sample search for Claudio Abbado (22 concerts) – Ludwig van Beethoven brings up seven options, ranging from his 1994 European concert in Meiningen, to his 2002 European concert in Palermo, all complete with full repertoire listings. Visitors simply click to buy a ticket and watch that specific film.

Surely such rich information can be mined to predict trends and preferences? The sophisticated system must be a data analyst’s dream and bear some influence on what happens in the concert hall? Not so.

‘I have to say that we have no influence whatsoever on what the orchestra plays in the hall,’says Möller. ‘I think one of the reasons why Berlin Philharmonic is a great orchestra is that it focuses on music it finds interesting; it’s not about meeting the demands of the online audience. The figures from the repertoire of the digital archive have no influence on the programming. But our duty online is to tread very carefully: our concerns are ‘How do people use the Digital Concert Hall’ and ‘How are they led through the functionality and understanding of what we are doing’. This is more our focus. For example, we learned recently that there are many people who confused the Digital Concert Hall with the website of Berlin Philharmonic – that was something we needed to fix.’

Paid-for concert content in the Digital Concert Hall is supported by free backstage interviews, films of players discussing past concerts, and vox pops during the intermissions – all excellent enticements to encourage viewers to buy a ticket to watch the orchestra live from the comfort of their homes (or indeed wherever they might be).

Digital Concert Hall for iPad
Digital Concert Hall for iPad

Serendipity has played a part: the orchestra has not only been aided by clever thinking, but also a stroke of good luck. ‘This is a pioneering project and many things have happened that we simply couldn’t have predicted,’ says Möller. ‘There have been developments in media that have supported our own development, for example internet-enabled TV allows you to watch online content on your home entertainment system. That wasn’t available in 2008, but it’s something that, of course, makes the whole concept of streaming online concerts at home much more plausible than it was in the beginning. The same goes for mobile devices, and the fact that it’s absolutely normal now to watch videos online on your phone. When we began the Digital Concert Hall in 2008, there were only poor quality videos on YouTube.’

Berlin Philharmonic’s investment in the launch of its own label, despite already having a strong recording relationship with Deutsche Grammophon and Sony, is further evidence of its willingness to take risks. Its first release, Simon Rattle conducts Schumann, is available as a beautifully crafted disc set, as well as on limited edition vinyl. Both options come with the added bonus of free digital downloads and a voucher for use in the Digital Concert Hall.

Schumann vinyl
Schumann vinyl

‘It’s no longer about doing a recording, putting it on a shelf and hoping someone buys it,’ explains Möller. ‘The live aspect of communicating with audiences is something very profound for classical music. We’re still collaborating with the major labels – last year we made several recordings with Deutsche Grammophon and Sony – but those were projects where the orchestra was working with an exclusive artist and soloist from the label.

‘Our own recordings are different because we are working with the orchestra on our core repertoire, such as Schumann. We observed for years that recordings of the repertoire closest to the heart of orchestra were in decline: the last symphony cycle we recorded with Simon Rattle was in 2009.’

Möller continues: ‘Our own recordings allow us to decide for ourselves what we’re doing, and what we’re releasing. This is made all the easier to distribute because of our strong digital communication channels. As I mentioned before, we now have the means to contact people directly and reach a worldwide audience, and so all this sits very well together.’

Do they ever feel they are pushing the boundaries too far? ‘It’s a huge challenge because there are not so many people out there employing the same strategies as us. When we started our digital business model, there were very few people willing to pay for anything on the internet. Ours was an ambitious strategy because younger people don’t want to pay to watch things online so much, and older people, particularly in Germany where not many older people have a credit card, are also very reluctant when it comes to paying for anything online.

‘But again, general developments have worked very much in our favour – the popularity of services for other music, such as iTunes, has made people far more quality conscious when it comes to spending time and money online than they were even a short while ago.’