If necessity is the mother of invention, then discontent is the father. Look behind any innovation and you’ll find someone unhappy with some aspect of the world, spurred on by a desire to change it. Till Janczukowicz, founder and CEO of classical music streaming platform Idagio, is a malcontent indeed – not on his own account, but on behalf of the artists with whom he has spent all his working life.

Till Janczukowicz
© Dusia Sobol

Till frequently describes himself, with a noticeable dose of irony, as a “failed pianist”. That doesn’t quite tell the story: after a smooth passage through music conservatoire, a close friendship with Krystian Zimerman left him with the feeling that he “could never become a pianist the way Krystian is a pianist”. Instead, with Zimerman’s help, he turned to artist management, becoming an important player in the field. Idagio is the fourth start-up he has founded, following successes with a big band at Schleswig-Holstein Festival in 1993, Columbia Artists Berlin in 2000 and Abu Dhabi Classics in 2008. Till’s mentor, over a sixteen year period, was Ronald Wilford, the legendary CEO of Columbia Artists Management and impresario to a legion of the world’s most famous conductors. Till reveres Wilford as having “total customer obsession – his loyalty was always with the conductors he managed and he had a deep understanding of their needs – combined with unbelievably impressive execution”.

As the new millennium progressed and the internet started to pervade our lives, Till began to become concerned by the way artists were “disappearing” on the web. “Classical music is a system of cover versions – you can have hundreds of versions of a Beethoven symphony, and I couldn’t track down my clients’ recordings in the digital space.” Royalties were diminishing even for the very biggest stars like Seiji Ozawa and Arcadi Volodos as well as for many others, including those with contracts with labels like Sony and Universal. At the same time, many iconic recordings had come out of copyright and were being sold at very low cost: “You would find Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli for free, but you would have to pay for Lang Lang. You would get Furtwängler for free; you would get even the first Beethoven cycle of Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic, but not the Ninth.” Till’s conclusion was simple: “if we don’t want to lose relevance, we need to use technology in order to bring classical music into a new era”.

Till went back to first principles. “Artists perform, teach and talk in exchange for recognition and money. Audiences want to listen, watch and learn.” The task at hand was to connect the two. When Idagio first raised venture capital in 2015, his intention wasn’t merely to create a streaming platform: it was to cover every aspect of connecting artists to their audiences, directly and globally.

“What we call art is based on togetherness. Throughout history, music was entertaining, it was educational and it was social. Sound recording scaled the genre, but it also separated music from the artist and separated the artists from the listeners. It turned music into a commodity. It’s devaluing art and it’s devaluing what artists are doing. With a physical concert, the things that happen with fellow audience members between 6:00 and 7:30, in the twenty-minute intermission, and in the time after the concert represent much value to audiences. The digital space needs to provide a parallel for this.” 

Till describes the “mass phenomenon” when a thousand people listening to a symphony orchestra collectively hold their breath for many seconds in an absolutely silent hall. “It's the same togetherness as an English soccer stadium, but it's also the opposite: what unites people in the concert hall is stillness; in the stadium, it’s noise.”

This line of thinking has prompted Idagio Interactive, which provides an online experience that is rich, deep and interactive beyond the dreams of a mere record producer. Idagio has just run its first pilot: an online course in which Thomas Hampson explored Mahler’s work through his songs. For a 90 minute episode each week, attendees listened to and conversed with Hampson and an invited guest. These included Marina Mahler (the composer’s granddaughter and head of the Mahler Foundation), Jamie Bernstein (whose father Leonard was one of Mahler’s most celebrated interpreters), the composer’s biographer Jens Malte Fischer, and musicologist Morten Solvik, Board Director of the International Gustav Mahler Society.

Idagio Interactive masterclass with Jamie Berstein

“You will never in your physical life meet these people, have a possibility to speak with these people. But it’s about Mahler. It’s around a shared passion. People paid €500 for this course and many said ‘well, it was far too cheap.’ ” A second course, run by Jamie Bernstein about her father’s embrace of music, was another outstanding success.

Till believes that there is “huge potential” in this business model – of bringing people together in a curated experience based around their passions. The experience of learning Mahler from such an extraordinary cast of teachers does indeed sound phenomenal. But can it scale? Will it be possible for Idagio Interactive to reach the tens of thousands of users a year needed to justify the investment? Till is confident. “What I've experienced is you can scale such a thing up to 500 people where everybody really has this feeling of community and togetherness. “You want to be part of something that’s bigger than yourself” Till continues, “and this is exactly what happens. The reactions we had from participants were amazing”. The scalability, he believes, is possible if you dismiss as “an old world model” the idea that Idagio might produce all this content itself; rather, it should become a platform where others are welcomed in to create their own content. “Of course, we will kick it off, be role models, provide blueprints to copy”.

While some artists have problems in expressing themselves through words, he says, others are amazing communicators. Not all of these are the very greatest artists, but some are, of which he reels off a list: Thomas Hampson, Michael Tilson Thomas, Yo-Yo Ma, Donald Runnicles. He points to Iván Fischer: “in the pandemic, he put on his iPhone and spoke about Mahler, nine times, for 25 minutes each. He switched on his mobile phone, took a seat at the piano and filmed himself. He loved it.”

Search for Beethoven Symphony no. 5

While Idagio Interactive is a work in progress, the core audio streaming business continues to be the company’s principal source of income. With rival Primephonic having been acquired by Apple in August 2021, Idagio is now the only streaming service with a comprehensive classical catalogue and a workable method of finding specific recordings of individual works. While we can assume that Primephonic’s technology will be used to provide a classical offering for Apple Music, there’s been no sign of it yet. For now, therefore, if you want to find that recording of Beethoven’s Fifth by a particular one of the 154 conductors who have recorded it, Idagio is your only choice. The pervasive “Artist / Album / Track” schema used by Spotify, Apple Music and their peers simply doesn’t do the job.

The other crucial aspect of Idagio’s audio streaming service is that the artists are remunerated fairly. Spotify and most others disadvantage classical artists because they pay per-track (classical tracks are often longer than other genres) and they split all revenues on the platform across all artists (to the advantage of genres played all day as background music). Idagio’s model is per-second rather than per-track and is “user-centric” (the money from each subscriber goes to the artists they listen to, not to the general pool).

Till is convinced that the share of streaming revenue that flows to the artists is too low. My estimate of 13% in my article last March, he tells me, is far too optimistic: the real figure is in the range of 5-8%. “You will never, ever make streaming on its own into a relevant income source for artists.”

Idagio also streams filmed live concerts, which represented a first step into the video world. But Till is certain that audiences want more. “The one thing that is clear is that immersive experiences enabled through technology are dramatically increasing.” The response to those first immersive experiences on Idagio Interactive has convinced Till that he has found a winning formula. “I believe in the future. We are going to have verticals around passions, because people do not change their passions, they will miss their passions and they will miss their peers more and more. I know that what these musicians wrote two or three hundred years ago is deeply connected to how we human beings are wired, it will stay attractive to anybody, even those born in 2022. If it was attractive to people born in 1960, it will be attractive to people born in 2100 – if the world then still exists. But the business models are changing dramatically.”

This article was sponsored by IDAGIO