13 years too late, the BBC’s classical music back catalogue is being made available

Bust of Ludvig van Beethoven

Once in a while, when listening to music on shuffle, a Beethoven symphony plays. The MP3 files came from the BBC. They offered recordings of all of his symphonies as free downloads back in 2005, as part of the Beethoven Experience, a season of programming celebrating the composer.

It was an experiment never to be repeated. Not because of a lack of demand. 1.4 million downloads were made during the two-week period in which the files were available. In the earliest days of podcasting, this was quite a figure. As Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian wrote the following year:

It was a figure that surprised everyone, including the record companies, who rushed to digitise their catalogues in the face of hard evidence of the market for downloads.

But while the industry was grateful for the free research, it was not at all keen on [the BBC] repeating the exercise, no doubt fearing that it would discourage people from spending money on recordings.

The classical music industry halted the BBC from doing anything like it again. As Adam Bowie noted a few years later:

Rather than perhaps considering that the BBC was using its own orchestra, playing out of copyright music (Beethoven died in 1827), might actually encourage more people to discover the works of one of history’s greatest composers, they were incensed that the BBC was killing the classical music recording industry.

13 years on from the Beethoven Experience, the BBC “plans to make its back catalogue of classical music available to the public”.

Director general Tony Hall is expected to say the move will mean historic and recent performances are “returned to the public”.

It’s long overdue. The classical music industry inhibited the BBC from doing the right thing 13 years ago. If this had happened sooner, it wouldn’t only be Beethoven’s symphonies that would occasionally pop up in my music player. That’s the classical music industry’s loss.

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