Streaming was a lockdown lifeline. When my bursting diary – often stuffed with four or five concerts, operas or ballets a week – was wiped clean almost overnight, I sought to plug the gaps with online alternatives. There was plenty on offer. At one point, Bachtrack had over 1,000 streams in its database as companies scrambled to put content online and maintain a virtual link to their audiences. 

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A wealth of streaming platforms

First the obvious caveat. Nothing, but nothing can beat attending live performances; the thrum of an orchestra tuning up, the thrill of risks being taken, that magical communion between performers and audience. Hearing the LSO play Bluebeard’s Castle “in the flesh” last week was truly breathtaking. But as someone who came to classical music via recordings, and who reviews hundreds of CDs and DVDs in the freelance part of my life, streaming is a natural extension and I happily lapped up all I could swallow. 

My routine often involved deciphering what I had to catch that particular day before it disappeared. Here, the Metropolitan Opera and Wiener Staatsoper were onto a winner. By streaming each opera for just 24 hours, it narrowed the window of opportunity, meaning their offerings had to be gobbled up swiftly, prioritised ahead of other houses that made things available for a week, a month… or until they remembered to take it down from YouTube. I still haven't watched the – by all accounts excellent – Don Carlos from Liège, but I’ve just checked and it’s still there, available until February 2021. 

The Met and the Staatsoper also had the advantage of massive archives on which to draw. In Vienna, every new production and every revival is filmed. This enabled the house to pretty much replicate its intended schedule so that in March, for example, you could watch – and I did – three different performances of Margarethe Wallmann’s classic staging of Tosca within ten days. I thought of it as a “try before you buy” service… and so did those companies that usually charge a subscription fee. 

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Bachtrack's Video database still has over 900 events

The Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall offered a free trial month during March and April. A service that usually has 10,000 registrations a month suddenly had 700,000. Just imagine how many of those were converted into subscriptions. I was ready to nail my colours to the Wiener Staatsoper mast and stump up for a subscription, but new broom Bogdan Roščić has just made its service available for free (Elektra streams this evening). Perhaps those institutions in Europe that receive the majority of their funding from the state feel duty-bound to offer their work to the widest possible audience via a free platform. 

But my addiction shifted dramatically in May. Other than reviewing the Bolshoi stream of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s new staging (February 2020) of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko, I barely watched any archive performances. What changed? Well, musical life began to return to concert halls. It was often to empty halls (Wigmore Hall’s cherished series of lunchtime recitals), or to tiny, socially-distanced audiences, but it was a start. And they were streamed. Once again, it was possible to experience that special frisson of a live performance. Dijon, Vienna, Paris, Pärnu, Bamberg, Hamburg, Salzburg… I clocked up virtual air miles by the bucketload.

And most of it was free. But can that continue? Should it continue? What are the implications of releasing material for nothing? Oliver Mears, Director of Opera at Covent Garden, recognises the dilemma. “There was a feeling from artists that by releasing free content we were effectively devaluing their artistry,” he told me this week. 

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The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House occupy the Stalls, Live in Concert
© Royal Opera House

In the summer, the Royal Opera House aired three live streams; the first for free, the others behind a £4.99 Vimeo paywall. It was clearly trialling business models and is cagey about releasing commercially sensitive figures. Last week, its Live in Concert performance, reuniting the orchestra and chorus for the first time, cost £16 to access. “You’re trying to establish what the market will take and what’s reasonable to charge people, but equally what you don’t want to do is put too low a price on it.”

But does that price put people off? Can asking for donations actually generate more income? Wigmore Hall led the return to live performance in the UK and made its lunchtime recitals in June freely available. It has programmed a further 100 this autumn, to which socially-distanced audiences (via a Friends ballot) will also be admitted. John Gilhooly told us earlier this week that the fundraising around each stream helps cover the artists’ fees in full, although he concedes that “if this model doesn’t work, we will consider a pay-per-view option or a season ticket in the Spring”.  

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Christian Gerhaher opens Wigmore Hall's autumn series

The ROH is already there. “What we know is that the donation only model works well for the first two events that you do,” Mears explains, “and then it tails off dramatically, so our view is that the more sustainable model is pay-per-view.” 

Streaming is clearly going to be part of our cultural lives for some time to come. Even as small audiences return to venues, streaming will be vital, not just for supplementing limited ticket sales but for those audience members who will be understandably nervous about returning to the concert hall or opera house. This dual approach is certainly where the Royal Opera House is heading. “We are hopeful that we will be able to have a socially-distanced audience of around 950 (40% of the total capacity) in October,” Mears tell me, “and we will stream those performances as well. We are excited about the opportunity to have an audience in the house while also using our uniquely effective broadcast capabilities.” Expect an announcement in the next week. 

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British orchestras are gradually developing their own streaming models. It feels like they’re groping in the dark to some extent, not least because many have little or no experience of broadcasting online. Only the London Symphony Orchestra, which regularly recorded and streamed concerts at the Barbican, had enough archive material to share two concerts a week during the early months of lockdown. But abbreviated autumn seasons are finally being announced that will either play behind closed doors or to small houses, streamed to an online audience which, in most cases, will have to pay to watch. And quite right too. It’s time to slip the noose of free streams. They were great at the start when we were talking about raiding the archives, but that set a dangerous precedent of audiences expecting something for nothing. When it’s fresh content – live content – it’s down to us to cough up, be it pay-per-view or donations, otherwise there could soon be no content to share because its creators have gone bust. 

But have UK orchestras and opera companies left it too late? Have customers already jumped on board with established outfits like The Met on Demand or the Digital Concert Hall? Or are they already signed up to one of the many subscription streaming platforms? Or are there just too many free alternatives? Only time will tell but this is a time for boldness. Only adventurous programming and imagination in adapting to new performance restrictions will inspire audience loyalty which will then translate into the payments required to keep our orchestras and opera companies afloat.