A Song For the Web

YouTube is better known for its viral spoofs and witty amateur skits than serious downloads. And doesn't Google know it. Since it bought the video platform in 2006 for $1.6 billion, the Internet Goliath has been busy trying to turn the anarchic ecosystem it bought into a mainstream video distributor without sacrificing its user-generated appeal. To this end, Google has inked content deals with Universal Music, Sony, the BBC, BMG, CBS and even a project with the World Economic Forum. Its latest initiative to add seriousness to YouTube goes as far from a dog-on-a-skateboard clip as it gets. The "YouTube Symphony Orchestra" pairs the site with the world's most venerable classical-music institutions in a sort of worldwide talent show. The project will bring classical music to a new generation through one of its own portals.

The idea applies an "American Idol" formula to the Web. Musicians from around the globe can download a score by the revered Chinese composer Tan Dun, learn their part with the help of video master classes by top musicians and upload their auditions. Winners will be flown to Carnegie Hall for a YouTube Symphony summit, where they'll get instruction from the eminent conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and coaching from top musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra. Then they'll perform as the "first-ever collaborative online orchestra" in a concert broadcast on YouTube. "There are so many invisible Beethovens behind YouTube," said Tan Dun, who recorded a video encouraging YouTubers to get involved.

Orchestral music may seem like an unlikely target for YouTube, but the pairing is strategic: classical music gets a much-needed image makeover and distribution outlet; YouTube gets class and technology. Contrary to the stereotype of packing dingy basements with dusty Elgar LPs, classical-music connoisseurs are driving a push toward digital quality—namely, surround-sound technology and high-resolution downloads.

Classical music is also a potentially fertile new market for online music. While music-industry sales in general declined 15 percent last year, proportionally the classical sector has been rising in recent years. According to Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks digital and retail music sales, digital classical album sales in the United States increased by 47.7 percent last year, accounting for 7 percent of the genre's 18 million total album sales, up from 4.4 percent the previous year. Classical MP3 downloads are thriving and pulling in new audiences. When Ralph Couzens, managing director of Chandos Records, launched his classical Web site www.theclassicalshop.net in 2005, his customer database doubled in less than a year. "We proved from day one that there was a new market out there," says Couzens. He believes his customers are less likely to file-share, saving his niche industry from the piracy that has crippled sales in pop music. "Downloads have opened up the market for people who like to dabble rather than feeling awkward and embarrassed in music shops."

YouTube is using the promotion to build on its success in classical music and bolster its image as a powerful educational tool. It is already well on its way to cornering the market in online classical visual content. The site has become extremely popular with classical viewers who seek out obscure recordings of Shostakovich or Maria Callas to watch online. One stirring performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 by the conductor Herbert von Karajan has had 2.4 million hits. A bizarre rendition of Beethoven's Für Elise posted by an unknown Korean, Zack Kim, and performed on two electric guitars, has been viewed 3.8 million times. Classical musicians are adamant that watching a maestro in action does wonders for technique: "It's like a good golfer would look at a swing," says Tim Hugh, principal cello of the London Symphony Orchestra, who will be coaching YouTube's Carnegie finalists next spring. "You see the angle of the body, the arm, the way the bow moves."

Google's audition model also seeks to tap into the thriving but fragmented online classical community. By dispensing with the austere ritual of contestants playing for veteran musicians, Google hopes the online symphony will embolden young classical players to try out. Potential members of the virtual orchestra can interact online and swap notes or practice to a video of Tan Dun conducting the score of his new piece.

The project carries some risk to YouTube's particular appeal as a collector of video flotsam and jetsam. The metaphor of the conductor, the ultimate benevolent dictator, could be seen as an attempt to impose order and extract profits. Google is walking a fine line. YouTube product marketing manager Ed Sanders insists that YouTube is a technology company, not a content-producing company, and that the music project is "all about the users." "We're now at a really interesting moment where the technology and the collaboration of the YouTube community can collide in a spectacular way," he says. Experts tend to agree that Google has done well to leave YouTube content well enough alone. Bringing the highbrow to YouTube is fine, but any attempt to control those double electric Für Elises would be a loss to the Web, and Google knows it.