Live Streaming Digital Concert, Virtual Aura?

Sir Simon Rattle wields the baton, the camera fixes on it, and all the world can take part in the concert. Live streaming is increasingly becoming a means of conveying music in new ways. An opportunity for orchestras and individual artists alike.

Music is a performance art: in fleeting moments, concerts unfold their emergent aura, a process that Walter Benjamin reflected upon in his essay Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) of 1935. About eighty years and a media revolution later, the phenomenon of music is undergoing a new change under the conditions of digitalization: live streaming is dissolving the ties of musical performance to the stage and bringing live music in real-time onto all web-enabled devices. But does the digitally transmitted performance also convey the aura?

Getting out of the concert hall

The history of dissolving the boundaries of the concert hall begins at the end of nineteenth century: the phonograph merged the storage and transmission technology of sound in a single device, while the telegraph and the telephone made possible the wireless transmission of music, albeit marred by background noise, whose elimination soon became the goal of all sound engineers. Pioneers of electronic music such as Karlheinz Stockhausen went even further, divesting music of all concrete references and, in the opinion of many, thus depriving it of its auratic presence. At the same time began the rise of mass media such as radio and television, which made the live transmission of concert events widely popular.

Since its founding years, public service broadcasting has transmitted concerts and made them accessible to a broad audience sitting round their parlour radios. Concert organizers and opera producers were aware of the aura attaching to the co-presence of performers and audience, and so sought to generate public events by means of the live broadcasting of major performances – to less than the delight of music connoisseurs, whose interest lay in the best possible sound phenomena under the best acoustic conditions.

Brave new world of listening

Digitalization has succeeded in largely removing background noise from the technical production, storage and playback of sound. Nevertheless, the belief in the aura of live performances lives on, and not only amongst conservative music lovers but also adherents of digital sound culture. Under the rubric of “live streaming”, old and new greats of the music industry are equipping themselves for the high-quality real-time transmission of music. “Live streaming, through which events are transmitted in real-time, resembles a concert because it is bound to the present and has a beginning and end”, says the digital journalist Johannes Boie, and adds: “But it is an independent medium”. Actors of the new era of sound, ranging from social networks and start-ups to major music institutions, are securing via streams their plots in the virtual landscape of unlimited listening possibilities so as to transmit the aura of live events to the digital age.

In virtual space, start-ups such as maxdome, Concert Vault, Skyroomlive, electrosound.tv, Livestream and 55artsclub offer partly free recordings of concerts. Most real-time transmissions, however, are subject to charge. On the other hand, services such as “dooop” make use of the networking possibilities of the internet. Here musicians can market private concerts as live streams in the style of self-publishing, thus making themselves independent of publishers and record companies. However, in diametrical contrast to the advances in acoustics, this threatens to turn general listening habits into an on-the-way culture. In spite of the best technology, music is being increasingly heard on bad, portable speakers. In this way, and combined with the manipulability of digital sound, whether live or recorded and played back, the appreciation of musicians, and even listening culture itself, is being put at risk.

Classical music as stream

“The most fleeting of all arts, music is more available in the digital age than ever before, as a reliably preserved live event, accessible at any time and any place for a small fee”, writes the Berlin music critic Frederik Hansen, summing up this rapid development. With some delay, and in counterbalance to this, musical high culture has taken the digital field. In its initiative Go Plus, the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra offers five concerts per season in live stream “without admission ticket”, while the Berlin Philharmonic is banking on world-class quality also in real-time transmission. “Here we play only for you”, advertises the orchestra for its Digital Concert Hall, citing the various means of reception through which you can listen to its private guest performances: “On TV, computer, tablet or smartphone”. To ensure a lossless data transmission in studio quality, the orchestra uses a “high-resolution audio platform” and generates suspense through the figure of a red clock, ticking backwards to the next live event – for instance, György Ligeti’s Grand Macabre.

Here we see an opportunity for live streaming in high quality. It allows the search for new listening sectors in the vastness of the Web, connects scattered communities such as “lovers of New Music” and creates new monetization for an ailing industry. For example, for some money per year, you can be the direct witness to major concert events. But can such broadcasts convey the special aura of the live performance, and doesn’t the general availability run contrary to glamour of exclusivity? Not so long as live streaming is seen as a new actor in the field of musical media that doesn’t threaten the live experience but rather supplements it in everyday life. Even with perfected sound reproduction, the virtual aura of digital audio transmission cannot replace the multi-sensory experience of the concert hall and the performative interaction between the stage and the audience. If you understand streaming as an appetizer for the real, on-the-spot pleasure, however, or as an opportunity for culturally weaker regions to enjoy high-quality performances, then it opens many prospects independent of the existing structures.