It’s Bachtrack’s 15th birthday! In January 2008, went live. With fifteen years and many millions of page views since then, my wife and co-founder Alison and I can sincerely claim to have helped hundreds of thousands of music lovers across the world to make their way to live performances. We’ve brought together a team of incredible people who have made it all possible, and we’ve done it without a penny of public funding. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved so far, and although it’s a mere drop in the ocean of global culture, it’s enough to make it worth telling a few stories about how Bachtrack evolved.

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Bachtrack co-founders Alison and David Karlin
© Samuel Karlin

The idea arose because I was a lapsed concert- and opera-goer. A committed fan of classical music and opera, I hadn’t been to a live concert or opera in years. We realised that a major factor in this was that I simply had no idea what was available: worse, most of my so-called knowledge was just plain wrong. “Royal Opera tickets are unaffordable” (true for many seats but not all), “Glyndebourne tickets cannot be purchased for love nor money” (untrue), “there is no other opera in London” (spectacularly untrue). Three years after starting Bachtrack we were still frequently finding classical concert venues we hadn’t known about.

What Alison and I did know was our skill set: hers in sales and business analysis, mine in technology and management. We decided that the world needed an online tool to help find its way into concert halls, and that the two of us could build it. So we set about building a special purpose search engine for classical concerts and opera in the United Kingdom.

When describing what happened next, you can’t avoid the term “mission creep”. Alison decided that if we could find concerts in the UK, there was really no reason not to make the site worldwide. The most important step was when we determined that search engines wouldn’t index mere lists of events: the Googlebot wanted “relevant content”, by which it meant articles. So, Alison concluded, we’d better write some. I therefore started, haltingly and with a severe dose of impostor syndrome, to write reviews and blog posts. To my astonishment, not only did the Googlebot like them, but so did a number of real people: I will be forever grateful to Simon Majaro, the founder of chamber music charity Cavatina, for giving me the confidence to keep writing.

Alison’s next apparently insane idea was that she could find lots of other people to write for us for free. Except that it wasn’t insane. She recruited a wonderful cross-section of authors from all manner of walks of life: Alan Yu, finance director in a major multi-national business which allowed him to plan his company meeting schedule around the concerts he wanted to attend across the globe; Ken Ward, former taxi driver and head of the Bruckner Society, who has forgotten more about Bruckner than any of us will ever know; Nahoko Gotoh, a musicologist who writes for us to this day both in London and in her native Japan, where her work remains invaluable to us. They have been followed by countless others: we’re especially proud (albeit a touch wistfully) when young writers who started with us move on to proper jobs with major press outlets like the New York Times or the FT.

If we could do all that, why not make the site multilingual? In 2013, we moved from the Drupal content management system to Plasmapp, a CMS that I designed from scratch to optimise our complex business processes: Bachtrack is now published in English, French, German and Spanish.

When you’re a web publisher, the choice of business model is both critical and difficult. Like any other, we have to follow the three-phase cycle of “Content, Eyeballs, Money”. Skilful as the process of content creation is, it’s the easiest of the three in that it’s under our own control. The second phase – getting the visitor numbers – is harder, requiring ruthless focus on Search Engine Optimisation and continuous reinvention in the face of the changing landscapes of online advertising and social media. The hardest phase, of course, is monetisation. To repeat: we’re not a charity and we don’t even get grant funding, and for better or for worse, we’ve chosen to be free-to-view and 100% funded by advertising and sponsorship. We’ve considered the idea of a paywall but it’s never really appealed and we consider it a solution of last resort.

So we are incredibly grateful to all of our customers, and especially to those earliest customers, when we were a fraction of our current size, who trusted us to deliver them profile, reputation and/or ticket sales across the concert-going and opera-going public. The London Symphony Orchestra were first, the other London orchestras and Bournemouth Symphony followed. The BBC Proms came shortly after; Schubertiade was the first festival to become a customer, followed by Cheltenham Music Festival; the Gran Teatre del Liceu was our first opera house customer and remains one of the most influential.

Even after all this time, I feel awkward running a business where our users and our customers are different groups of people. And it’s noteworthy that for many of our customers, the single most important service that we provide is to get their events reviewed – for which, as a matter of journalistic principle, we never accept money (other than for the occasional provision of travel and lodging for authors on press trips). Somehow, we are able to resolve those tensions and make things work, although I bristle slightly at those organisations – usually the largest and wealthiest – who are happy to accept the benefits that Bachtrack brings them but have no intention of ever paying us a dime.

And of those benefits, I am totally confident. At a time when major national newspapers in many countries are reducing their arts coverage both in quantity and quality, Bachtrack has earned an unimpeachable reputation for serious, authoritative comment in every language in which we publish. To our extraordinary writers: we salute you and thank you with all our hearts. Our listings database is unique: countless people have attested to finding concerts, opera and dance across the world that they would never have spotted. Others just find it easier to use than the promoters’ own websites. That’s only possible because our team is fanatically obsessive about data quality – an obsession not often found in captivity.

Like everyone in the performing arts, we had a really tough first year of the pandemic. But our employees and freelancers responded magnificently, honing their skills, improving their efficiency at every turn, and maintaining or even increasing the quality of their work. First and foremost, it is they who have made this into such a fabulous fifteen years. And the innovation will continue – dance fans should keep a careful eye on the site in February.