Yesterday found me in Cardiff, at the Millennium Centre, as part of our ongoing work with the BBC’s innovation programme Connected Studio, which I’ve written about extensively here. The day was the “Creative Studio” phase of a CS looking at attracting new audiences to Classical Music, and specifically to the BBC’s involvement therein. Remember that the BBC not only has Radio 3, it runs the world’s biggest Classical Music festival – The Promscovers Classical Music extensively on TV and runs five symphony orchestras and a choir. Regular readers will know that I’m passionate about the role technology has to play in all specialist music; with that in mind I was attending in a rather different role to normal, that of “roaming expert”.

The event followed a similar format to ones that I’ve been lucky enough to attend elsewhere, in Salford, Glasgow and London: a morning of briefings around the topic at hand from BBC experts, followed by an afternoon of team forming, idea development and finally pitching to BBC judges.

The morning kicked off with a typically exuberant introduction from Connected Studio Project Manager Robin Cramp, who gave us the background to CS – now one of BBC Future Media’s 5 divisional priorities – and ran us through the day. Robin was followed by the recently-appointed Director of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Michael Garvey, who welcomed us to the Millennium Centre and asked us, among all the thinking about technology and innovation, not to “forget about the music”. He also asked for projects that would recognise that Classical Music wasn’t all about “people in dinner jackets playing to rooms full of educated people”; that BBCNOW was reaching a whole new audience through, among other things, Facbook, Twitter, iTunes and Spotify, as well as through its work on TV blockbusters like Dr Who and Wizards vs Aliens (which was a new one to me but I’m not exactly to target demographic). He left us with one final challenge: that of introducing the symphony orchestra’s sonic power to a generation brought up with smartphones and earbuds.

Our old friend Ben Chapman was up next. Ben is BBC Radio & Music’s Head of Popular Music; although Classical Music is outside his bailiwick, he was here today to talk about Playlister, which launched last year. If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know that Playlister is a pretty major development for the BBC, a genuine re-imagining of the role it has to play as a curator of music. Based on “the three Rs” (Remember, Recommend and Re-play), the application allows listeners to tag pieces of music played on the BBC as they hear them on a connected device. They can then build playlists and – this is the really sexy bit from my point of view – export them to play in Spotify, Deezer and YouTube. Now that’s metadata in action for you.

Steve Bowbrick, Head of Digital at Radio 3 then talked us through some of the issues at stake today. I was particularly taken with his observation the Classical Music had for decades been at the cutting edge of technology, citing, among other things, the world’s first subscription music service, Théâtrophone, provided over the phone in 1881 (which Steve referred to as a “highly immersive Victorian cyber space – Steve, I am sooo going to nick that one), 1953’s first experimental colour TV transmission (an hour of La Traviata conducted by Arturo Toscanini) and the BBC’s first Outside Broadcast (The Magic Flute at the ROH). Steve pointed out that even Wagner’s putting the orchestra beneath the stage at Bayreuth in order to bring the action closer to the audience was a massive feat of technological innovation (I pointed out to BBC Music Magazine’s Oliver Condy that Complicité’s Simon McBurney turned this convention on its head in his recent astonishing production of The Magic Flute at the ENO)*.

Andrew Caspari is the BBC’s Head of Speech Radio and Classical Music Interactive. He opened up by playing a montage of live music played by Radio 3 over the last week and went on to ask: “Classical Music is a magical thing. How do we make it relevant in the 21st Century?” He said that for him, a successful outcome from today would be listeners who might say one of the following things:

  • I didn’t get into Classical Music until [digital proposition X]
  • I barely knew about Radio 3 until [digital proposition X]
  • I like some Classical Music but whenever I turn on the radio it’s something I don’t like; not so with [digital proposition X]

Ben, Steve and Andrew were then joined onstage by Radio 3 Editor Jeremy Evans and Radio 3’s Head of Marketing David Dunn, for a lively panel discussion and Q&A with the audience. Some intriguing facts, figures and obesrvations emerged, among them:

  • Typically, just 10% or thereabouts of listeners to a BBC Radio Station visit its website.
  • Radio 3 reached a tipping point in terms of mobile listening last year; over 50% at Christmas.
  • The BBC’s on-demand window is about to increase to 30 days (that might keep my dad off my back!)
  • “Simple things drive reach”
  • Classical Music’s core constituency is still “older”; Radio 3’s average listener age is 50 (I may have written that one down wrong so if you’ve got the definitive figure to hand please ping me)
  • There’s a vast amount of Classical Music available on YouTube – but the quality is pretty terrible

Robin then closed the morning by drawing attention to the day’s judging criteria:

  • Distinctiveness
  • Relevance
  • Innovation
  • Value
  • BBC Public Purposes
  • The BBC’s Connected Strategy (One Service, Four Screens, Ten Products)

So with that, the day “proper” was off, with attendees going off to form teams and start brainstorming ideas. The event actually had a precursor, the Higher Education event I covered here back in November. That event led to the recruitment of around 10 academics who were in attendance today and available to join the various groups as they formed. It’s a particularly smart way, I think to get academics involved in the innovation process with companies and individuals out in the world doing business at the tricky interstices of media, culture and technology. Other participants included some indie production and tech companies and individuals both from within and outside the BBC.

The next few hours were ably facilitated by Linda Cockburn, who encouraged the teams to think about the audience through the lens of three personas, which I thought were drawn extremely well. Linda also gave a session on pitching, which I didn’t catch but know from previous sessions is excellent. Teams were also able to sense check their ideas with an audience panel loosely based on the personas. As I said, I was on hand as one of the day’s experts, and sat in on various groups, challenging their ideas and perhaps seeding a few thoughts.

As I went round the room, I saw some definite themes occurring:

  • Navigation by mood
  • Metadata (I should hope so!)
  • Discovery
  • Apps
  • Classical Music in other contexts
  • Sight Reading

(I’ll reflect on some of these in a separate post with my own thoughts on Classical Music, audiences and technology; some of them might be a tad controversial, so I won’t explore them here.) Certainly those themes were reflected in the final pitching session, in which 16 ideas were presented in two-minute pitches – at a galloping pace encouraged by Robin. In brief, they were:

  • Symphonic Swipe (from Leeds’ Headland) – a graphically rich mobile app to explore the stories behind classical music and discover related content
  • Symphiniti (from 100 Shapes) – a Classical recommendations service with a nifty carousel interface
  • WePlay – “bringing you closer to the music” – an immersive app that lets the user eplore the orchestra in real time and even allows for the customisation of the band
  • Classy Apps – a slick Classical playlist that uses tags on TV shows
  • MoodSwing – a service which serves you Classical Music based on your mood
  • Revelations – an app that aggregates BBC Classical Music and other cultural content in a rich “palimpsest”
  • 383 – recommending, through push notifications, Radio 3 content to match your mood
  • 3flow (from Abstraktion) – which scans your iTunes library and makes Radio 3 recommendations based on both collaborative filtering and pattern-matching algorithms
  • Threads – reinventing Radio 3 as three online services or “threads”: Gold – core repertoire; Silver – lesser known classical; Neon – world, jazz etc)
  • Footprint – an app nested within iPlayer that assesses your potential Classical Music tastes through a simple 10-snippet Like It/Don’t music test
  • Eto Apps – a nifty sight reading app that allows the user to change various musical parameters and read music in real time
  • MoodStream – matching music from the 30 day window (I liked “Zen” as a mood, by the way)
  • BBC Maestro (from W12 Studios) – an app that tracks your listening and builds you a personalised service
  • Alchemist – a compositional app that uses various elements of Radio 3’s output – especially trickier contemporary music
  • Musical Mystery Tour – essentially an augmented reality app that serves up Classical Music relevant to location
  • MuseScore – a browser-based sight reading app

(As ever, I apologise if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick on any of your ideas – what can I say, there was a lot to take in! Get in touch with any corrections or clarifications.)

There were some real potential gems in there, and I look forward to hearing what goes through to the 2-day Build Studio, when ideas will get worked up into prototypes.

All in all, it was a hugely enjoyable day, slickly run as ever (it’s a mark, I think, of how successful and enjoyable the CS process is that several teams here, including Headland and 100 Shapes, had been at previous sessions). It was also great to catch up with some old faces from my years at the Beeb, including Kate Finch, Susanne Hay, Steve Bowbrick, Ben, Roger Philbrick, Andrew Downs and of course our old friend Nick Reynolds.


*Steve has now written up these and more examples in an excellent post on the BBC Internet blog here. For more on classical music and innovation in the recording and distribution of Classical Music, see Greg Milner’s brilliant Perfecting Sound Forever