Free Ludwig!!!

By Greg Last edited 165 months ago
Free Ludwig!!!

Londonist is on record as having hailed Radio 3's week of playing nothing but Beethoven. Let's just say that certain Londonists had some reservations about whether this was, in fact, the best way to move our classical music culture forward... but that's all water under the bridge now. (Until, that is, the week of playing nothing but Bach coming up this Christmas. And the day six hours of playing nothing but Anton Webern. So it goes.)

What isn't water under the bridge is the little spin-off venture of the Beethoven-Bonanza: Radio 3's giving away MP3s of Beethoven Symphonies for free. Yes, about five years after everybody else got tired of talking about Napster, suddenly the question of whether we deserve to be given valuable things for free has hit the classical music world.

After the jump: lots of irritating people say irritating things!

Honestly, not only are we tired of the issue, we want to give people on both sides of the debate a smack across the face. On the one hand, you have people like the always irritating and usually wrong Norman Lebrecht (the columnist called "excitable and unreliable" by a very smart person and "the cloacal apparatchik of today's BBC" by a less smart and more unpleasant person). He greeted the initial announcement of the free MP3s with the slightly creepy fantasy that the stunt would bring the gospel of Beethoven "to computer-literate millions in China, India or Korea who have never heard of Karajan or Klemperer." Then when people, understandably, took the bait and... took the free stuff (hell, we did), Lebrecht became downright delusional:

All we know for certain is that the symphonies reached a new audience of I-pod [sic] users, presumed to be under 20s, many of whom knew nothing of Beethoven beyond the name. This can be deduced from the fact that the first two symphonies, the least significant in the canon, drew the highest number of downloads - well over 150,000 each - while the benchmark Eroica mustered the fewest, just below 90,000.

Uh, what? Wouldn't it make more sense to conclude that people who already knew Beethoven already owned the Eroica, and so had no reason to download it... and would never have actually paid money for the First and Second anyway? And wouldn't it make still more sense that people simply starting downloading in order, and then got bored, or tired, or their mum called them away for dinner, and they forgot about it?

But then from other side, the evil record corporations struck back, claiming that a stunt like Radio 3's serves to devalue music, getting people used to the pernicious idea that classical music can and should be free.

Bloggers immediately dusted off the same-old, same-old Napster arguments (here and here) believing that the BBC was like a ghetto smack dealer (but in a good way?) offering kids their first hit for free. The kids will then be hooked, and "I would not be surprised if by years [sic] end we will see an increase in classical music sales."

Listen everyone, it's really very simple: people love free shit. We ourselves are partial to free alcohol. (If you prefer, you may substitute "ice cream" or "a pony" in the following.) If there is free alcohol on offer, we will drink it. And we will thank the person providing the free alcohol. And then we will drink more, and talk too loudly, and make a pass at the bartender. But we digress... Record companies, console yourselves with the knowledge that, even after drinking the free booze, we do not think that all alcohol should be free all the time. Bloggers, bear in mind that we only drank the free alcohol in the first place because we already knew we would or should enjoy it. Are you following us?

Yes, times are changing. Technology is changing; music is changing. 'Twas ever thus. Could we please spend more energy on actually convincing people that classical music can matter, based on the vitality, energy, meaningfulness, and surprise in the music — both on records and in the concert hall — rather than arguing about a stunt that assumed the greatness of Beethoven a priori, and whose quote-success-unquote was predetermined by human nature?

Image borrowed from

Last Updated 13 July 2005