A year in digital for orchestras — temporary solutions but big questions remain

David Taylor
6 min readMay 24, 2021

Back in March I was on a panel called “A Digital Dividend?” at the Association of British Orchestras conference. As part of that, I was asked to give an opening summary of all things digital in the orchestras over the last year as well as the provocation (all in under 8 minutes, so both were brief and swift).

I recently found my notes form this as well as my closing statement (“the future”) which I’ve fleshed out into something a bit slightly more substantial in case it’s of interest.


Orchestras of all sizes have faced huge challenges in the move to digitise their output. It’s important to note that every organisation had a totally different and unique starting point with varying factors such as resources, equipment, established following (social media/subscribers/audience, a back catalogue of videos, organisational set up etc.

But, there were common challenges for us all to overcome, including full lockdown, the furlough of musicians and staff, few systems in place to be nimble in the digital space, and that musicians are not trained to create digital content. It exposed that on the whole we were still playing catch up with digital when compared to other sectors.

Part 1 — March to August 2020

After lockdown was announced, orchestras in the UK found their feet with differing levels of speed, but some relatively quickly. This speed was mainly related to access to an existing back catalogue of content.

The orchestras that were most successful began to add supporting content which was audience focussed and identified how they could serve their audience during the first lockdown, with RSNO@Home being a great example of this, offering concerts, challenges, educational projects, and more.

One of the first back to play live (all be it distanced) were the London Mozart Players. As well as showing how we could make music again, it also showed a step up in cinematography and that orchestras could make high quality video content.

An area that I feel has been overlooked over the last year is youth orchestras and music education organisations and they need recognising for their mammoth effort they’ve put in to move courses, projects, concerts and teaching online during this time. NYO, NCOGB, Orchestras for All, NYOS, Lincolnshire Music Service are some great examples, with the New York Youth Orchestra showing how digital projects could be turned into significant press coverage.

During this period the main financial model for online concerts was free to watch with donations, which allowed for significant growth on social media channels. By the summer, engagement with content dropped off significantly, which some organisations may have missed as engagement per post is not normally a metric that is tracked.

Part 2 — September 2021 to now

As restrictions began to be lifted, the ability to perform enabled us to create content for online as ensembles or orchestras. Online concert seasons were launched and there was an almost instant shift to moving performances behind a paywall.

There was a mixture of organisations building own platforms and participating in others, such Marquee TV and Medici TV. However, some concerts remained free which made the argument for charging for performances more difficult.

We also saw more experimentation and innovation during this period. London Philharmonic’s VOPERA production was a great example of leaning in to the nature to the formant. There were also some great steps forward in cinematography, with the Philharmonia, LA Phil, Queensland Symphony Orchestra being great examples.

Most organisations shied away from doing genuinely live content, instead broadcasting pre-recorded performances. RNCM is one of the few to really experiment with the “live” element of livestreaming, creating their own show around the live music and offering audience engagement.

The level of consumer technology has allowed for all to great content and give then more opportunities for innovation. What was been done by freelance musicians and smaller organisations has been incredible and allowed them to build loyal followings.

Despite there being access to perfectly good and cheap options, professional Orchestras have tended to ignore consumer technology for more expensive options with little or diminishing returns on investment.

During this time, some of the consumer behaviour in buying tickets for online concerts was to support organisations and not necessarily a reflection on normal consumer behaviour in the digital space. This has led to initial success in selling digital concerts, but relying on a model that puts online performances behind, is not sustainable in the long-term.

Future challenges

I wish I had time to talk about game theory and how this applies to us and the digital marketplace, but in essence we’re trying to play our own finite game with rules and known players, when the world we operate in is infinite game. There no rules are both known and unknown players who can and will be disrupters.

For example, we now have other foreign orchestras, especially in the USA, are now launching high quality offerings which are either cheap or free who will be the known disrupters to out model. For example:

Free in February

  • LA Phil — soundstage and gala
  • Bergen Philharmonic
  • Budapest Festival Orchestra
  • Detroit Symphony Orchestra — 66 from the past 5 seasons
  • San Francisco Opera — an opera a week
  • Chicago Symphony — some free (archive and featured)
  • Cleveland — some free
  • Philharmonie de Paris


NY Phil+ — £4.77 a month

We also have unknown disruptors. New PRS laws in the UK will now charge those who are smaller and at entry level (freelancers, small ensemble etc.) for creating ticketed digital performances. As a result, it is no longer financially viable for them to do this, and this is going to force them into a “free model” which is then monetised indirectly. Consumer technology allows them to create equally high-quality content at lower costs, and being small they are also more nimble.

This is all before we look at the existing body of free content available and other pulls on consumers attention from outside our sector.

My opinion

Although they have been successful, in my opinion, ticketed performances and paid concert platforms have been a temporary fix to support us during the pandemic — an Elastoplast or a band aid solution. And there is nothing wrong with that.

But, this model is trying to recreate the in-person, direct transactional model which DOES NOT translate to consumer behaviour in the digital space, both before the pandemic, and how it will return afterward.

For digital concerts, we’ve created a model for the consumer behaviour that we want, not the consumer behaviour that exists.

We need to think bigger and look for inspiration elsewhere, where successful digital content businesses create an indirect ecosystem of monetisation that’s based on values, connections, and relationships.

The main challenge we face if we continue to put paywalls in front of our primary output online is the question of “why should someone pay to consume our product when there are other equally good and world class alternatives available for free?”

The Future

“Any music organisation that isn’t rethinking itself as a media, broadcast, and entertainment organisation that is in the market for people’s attention is delusional to the world we now live in”

We need to think bigger, act bolder, investigate alternative ways of doing things, and start to research and understand other successful digital models from other industries in order to take inspiration.

The questions we face are not “if digital is here to stay” or “how much should we charge for a digital concert”

The questions are:

  • how do we use digital to serve our audience and build relationships?
  • how do we support our organisation to be nimble in the digital world?
  • how to we train and empower our musicians to be digital ambassadors?
  • how do we create an ecosystem of monetisation around our primary content

I firmly believe the digital world is up for grabs for our sector, and looking forward it’s going to be fascinating to see who the disrupters are and who stakes a claim to it.



David Taylor

Arts Entrepreneur, Consultant, Presenter | Forbes 30 under 30