Stories The Meerkat and Periscope Effect

By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

Quick. What image comes to mind when you hear the phrase “classical musicians?”

It’s hard not to imagine the stern-faced man in a tuxedo or woman in a conservative black evening dress staring intently and seriously at the conductor on stage. Classical musicians tend to occupy the same mental space as a teacher for an elementary schooler, who might suspect their teacher waits patiently in their classroom afterhours until the next school bell rings in a new day.

But new apps in the livestreaming video field are starting to reveal a different side of classical musicians — one that might help pierce the overly serious veneer of the concert hall.

In the past five years, livestreaming video platforms and apps have popped up like new coffee shops in a hip neighborhood. Classical musicians and distributors aren’t the ones leading the charge in deciding which new video start-up draws a massive Wall Street IPO and which dies on the vine in a Silicon Valley garage, but for an art form and industry that is often conscious of a need to rebrand itself and find new audiences, it’s also easy to find a violinist, pianist or even orchestra plying their craft on the latest platform to generate buzz at a tech conference.

In 2011, conductor and former Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director David Zinman took to the streaming service Ustream, drawing more than 21,000 viewers for a concert with the English period instrument ensemble, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Similarly, orchestras like the Detroit Symphony are using the website Livestream to broadcast performances.

Showing the seriousness with which some in the classical world views livestreaming, the European Union’s cultural program and 15 major European opera companies in 12 countries teamed up to spend $4.5 million developing and running their own dedicated streaming service. The result is a website called The Opera Platform, which will broadcast an average of one production online each month and host archival and documentary materials.

So while livestreaming classical music has been around for years, what is new about some of the latest buzz-generating streaming apps is their informality. Making high quality concert performances available online with high production value might bring in new audiences, but there is a different charm and appeal to seeing a violinist in their own home practicing in a t-shirt and blue jeans.

Two new apps called Meerkat and Periscope each try to capitalize on that informality. Meerkat, which gained a media following after the 2015 South by Southwest tech conference, and Periscope, which was recently acquired by Twitter, operate on a basic idea: what if anyone in the world could see what I’m doing right now? Using their phones, users film whatever they want, and other users on their own phones can see their world through the video and interact with them through the app.

The result for better and worse is live broadcasts that at first glance would lead one to ask why anyone thought this was worth filming in the first place? Browsing the livestreams you have an option to see an Iowa girl's view inside an automated car wash or a man’s perspective and one-sided conversation with the pigeons he’s feeding in Rome.

While a lot of the classical world is rightfully looking to new possibilities the Internet offers to repackage a polished version of what happens in the concert hall, there is something captivating about the simultaneous trend toward the rough-around-the-edges, do-it-yourself spirit. In some cases that might be a man in a cramped Brooklyn apartment performing Jewish folk tunes for whoever will listen or a violinist chatting with viewers while they practice. Viewers could switch between Periscope streams of the Swiss Basel Symphony Orchestra and quartet Amped and Wired from both audience members and organizers of the Expo Milano festival.

Basel 2
A recent Periscope livestream at the Expo Milano

British TV and music presenter LJ Rich has taken to performing popular tunes on piano and explaining the classical music theory behind what she is playing. 

"Giving the audience access to the creative process and also a chance to communicate is pretty much exactly opposite to a traditional classical concert, where I’d be on a stage, far away from the listeners," she said in a recent blog about the experience.

These apps broadcast the mundane and notable moments of our lives alike, and oddly enough there is an audience for the mundane fueled by a healthy dose of voyeurism but also noble curiosity. What does life look like for someone in Abu Dhabi? What does a job as a dishwasher at a Michelin-star restaurant involve? Or as recent Periscope broadcast proved, what does an end-of-year playing test look like for a piano student in California?

That open invitation for the curious and ad hoc aesthetic may make both the music and the people who perform it more approachable. A livestreamer named Jaztica who uses the video game website Twitch to broadcast composing sessions suggested that a lot of her audience might think of classical musicians and composers as people who don't interact with their worlds, and seeing a behind-the-scenes view of a composer work can help erode the preconceived notions about a musical scene that can seem aloof in the concert hall.

Whether apps like Meerkat and Periscope are the next big tech thing or a short-lived fad, for the moment being they offer classical musicians a chance to skip the tuxedos and come as they are.