When think of classical music listeners, you might not picture web-savvy youth firing off blog posts about the great recital they just attended, or flitting through social networks to interact with their favorite contemporary ensemble. But according to Sidney Chen, Artistic Administrator of the avant-classical ensemble Kronos Quartet, all that and more is currently happening online, thanks to a cool little concept called net neutrality.
Net neutrality is the principle that protects the open Internet. It allows musicians to distribute their work in any way they want, without interference from gatekeepers and middlemen. It also provides fans with a plethora of legal ways to get their musical fix, often directly from the artist. But big telecommunications and cable companies want to change the fundamental structure of the internet by charging those who put content on the web — artists, filmmakers etc. — a fee for the faster delivery of their sights and sounds. If they couldn’t afford to (or didn’t want to) pay this toll, they’d be forced into in the information superhighway’s slow lane.
This would be devastating to artists like Kronos Quartet, who depend on the Internet to reach potential audiences. “Our projects don’t normally fit neatly into genres,” Chen says. “The Internet allows us to reach those people who aren’t reliant solely on mainstream media and other information gatekeepers.”
According to Chen, Kronos fans come from a wide variety of backgrounds, ages, and locations. “The consistent thread that ties together all of our fans is that they’re adventurous listeners,” he relates. “The Internet has allowed us to find people who are just out there exploring and looking for new and interesting sounds. It’s allowed us to have a direct, two-way connection with our existing fans and also uncover new audiences.”
Listeners often find Kronos through some other medium and use the Internet to become more familiar with the group’s repertoire, such as the soundtrack to filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream, which featured Kronos performances of Clint Mansell compositions. “[This audience] was very moved by the music and wanted to delve deeper,” Chen says. “The Internet allowed them to discover Kronos has this whole history… Requiem for A Dream became an entry point for all of these people who then became involved with Kronos in other ways.”
Actually, the Internet helped land Kronos land the Requiem gig in the first place. “The way that project happened was that Darren emailed us at our website and didn’t have to go through any other extraneous barriers,” Chen explains. He simply clicked on ‘contact Kronos,’ and wrote us an email saying, ‘I have this project. Would you be interested?’” The rest is cinematic musical history.
Kronos fans: gung-ho and global
Chen is particularly excited by the interactivity of the online experience. “It’s been fascinating to watch how audiences respond to and interact with an artist they like,” he says. “We’re constantly fascinated by the photographs that people put up of the group, the videos that people take in public settings, various things that they say about the group in blog posts — all very personal reactions.”
The Internet also lets Kronos extend their reach to locales in which they aren’t regularly able to perform. “Even though Kronos tours five months a year, it’s limited how many different places in the world we can go,” Chen says. “What we’re realizing is that there are so many other ways via the Internet to be able to get more music to the people who want to hear it. There’s also so much repertoire that Kronos plays that isn’t available on CD and yet are really fascinating pieces of music. This is one way to get that music out there.”
This global back-and-forth has clear benefits to the band. “[The open Internet] has really influenced the work that we do,” he explains. “Kronos has been so international in its scope and in its way of hearing the world, and the music that Kronos plays is not just from America and Europe — it’s from all over the place. It’s from Azerbaijan, it’s from New Zealand, it’s from China, it’s from Russia, from India. It’s really been about sound and how humans express sound throughout all of their cultures around the world. We don’t see the world in a boundaried way, we don’t hear the world in a boundaried way, and the Internet has allowed us to remove a lot of those boundaries.”
In a media environment marked by massive ownership consolidation, it’s increasingly important to preserve channels of communication where a few corporations don’t control how we access information. That’s why Chen believes net neutrality is crucial to everyone — artists in particular. “What we’ve seen with the consolidation of all these different media outlets — newspapers, television stations, and radio stations — is that musicians are having a harder time accessing those outlets,” he says. “Because it’s so consolidated, the information that [corporations] think is valuable to their audiences is very narrow in focus and really filtered.”
That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be intermediaries, says Chen. But the “wonder of the Internet,” as he calls it, is that “we have all been able to individually identify those filters that we trust.” This ability to freely choose is what makes the web so vital to communication in our era. But this could all go away if others are allowed to make those choices for us. “Whether its government controlled or controlled by a private entity like a telecom, if they’re choosing priorities for what content we’re receiving and we don’t even know about it, then that becomes a major problem,” Chen says.
Kronos Quartet is one of the founding artists of Future of Music Coalition’s Rock the Net campaign — a 1,000 artist strong movement to preserve the open Internet. “We feel that an Internet where the content isn’t prioritized by another entity is essential to every artist whose work doesn’t fit into the narrow focus of consolidated mainstream media,” Chen says. “And it should also be considered essential for every listener whose interest extends beyond those limits. Artists who don’t have the resources [shouldn’t have to] pay tolls to access the Internet highway — a highway that has become an essential part of our contemporary life.”
Contemporary isn’t a word always associated with the world of classical music, which for some conjures images of stuffy performance halls and snooty patrons. The Internet is eroding this stereotype, however. “We hear these tropes all the time about how classical music is dead, how classical music listeners are all old, how classical music listeners are not really engaged with the rest of American culture,” Chen says. “But if you have a couple of twentysomethings live blogging an opera webcast from a performance from 1960, you see that the audience is not all retired, that there is an active listening audience out there for classical music.”
That audience continues to expand, thanks to the Internet. “This community of people has found each other and is engaged in constant, daily dialogue about music,” he says. “It’s just a love of music that’s brought them together into a community, via the Internet, without any boundaries.”