Amidst the shutdowns, border closures, cancellations and redundancies the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought upon the arts industry, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has been an incredible success story. Adele Schonhardt and Chris Howlett established the ticketed live music streaming platform as a way of supporting musicians whose income suddenly dried up in March 2020, but they had no idea that just a year later they would have presented hundreds of concerts (including almost 1600 appearances by more than 700 individual artists) streamed from locations around Australia as well as London, Berlin, Singapore and San Francisco, raised over $1.25 million and become the country’s fastest growing national arts company.
Melbourne Digital Concert Hall Co-Directors Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt. Photo © Albert Comper
“Chris and I went into it thinking, well, we’ll do this for a few weeks and we’ll stream some concerts and if we’re lucky we might manage to generate a few thousand dollars for our colleagues,” Schonhardt tells Limelight as the organisation – which now boasts a part-time staff member in addition to its two directors – gears up to celebrate its first birthday on 27 March. “And here we are a year later with this national company that’s really thriving.”
“We’ve presented just over 280 concerts nationally and worldwide over the past year, which as far as I know we’re the only company in the world to have done that,” she says. “That’s really testimony to my co-director Chris Howlett for having that artistic vision and coordinating all of that.”
For Schonhardt, the fact that they were able to establish the platform at all has been an incredible triumph. “When we went into it this was a new concept and nobody was really sure whether people would be willing to pay to watch high quality content online,” she says, acknowledging the support of the platform’s founding sponsors, Kawaii, 5Stream and the Athanaeum Theatre, where the first concerts were broadcast. “So it was all up in the air at the beginning, and yet this incredible community of fans, friends and supporters were willing to give it a go.”
The community includes many who, before the pandemic, weren’t necessarily accustomed to going online at all. “A lot of our time has been spent on our tech support hotline helping particularly older people to get online and to watch the concerts in the first place,” Schonhardt says. “That’s been a really joy, we just love hearing from those people.”
MDCH has also managed to tap into a large network of music lovers who don’t normally attend concerts in Australia’s concert halls and venues. “I spend my days on the phone to people from far north Queensland, right through to Hobart and to people overseas,” Schonhardt says. “It’s never just those in that particular state where the concert is happening who want to watch.”
According to an audience survey conducted by MDCH, people who don’t go to concert halls formed more than a quarter of the platform’s total market. “A significant group of people and certainly worth looking after,” Schonhardt says. “It can be for any number of reasons, it can be health related or due to living remotely or whatever the case may be.”
“Because we’re not bound by a particular place it means that we can really start to work towards that accessibility for everybody that a lot of arts organisations talk about – how to increase access to the arts for all Australians,” she says.
A highlight for Schonhardt was a performance by the Darwin Symphony Orchestra in the Northern Territory. “They had a children’s choir involved in that performance and it was just fabulous to have grandparents of those children in Brisbane and in Melbourne and all over the place ringing in to arrange tickets. Just thinking about the fact that they were able to witness their grandchildren performing live in this concert is a magical thing.”
Another advantage of the platform is that composers who’ve had their works premiered on the platform – more than 20, including John Novacek, Kenji Fujimura and Bryony Marks – are able to tune in regardless of where they are geographically. “We’ve been working towards shifting the balance in favour of Australian composers, Australian music, we’re focussing on female composers, things like that – so that it feels like we’re building an arts company right from the outset that is more equal and offers greater access.”
“The other exciting thing, of course, is that we’ve established what we call our ‘concert hall in a box’, which is a set of high-quality broadcast equipment that we can send on the road.”
The ‘concert hall in a box’ has been crucial for expanding MDCH to include far-flung events like the upcoming Orange Chamber Music Festival in New South Wales, the Canberra International Music Festival and Townsville’s Australian Festival of Chamber Music in far north Queensland. “We’re starting to connect up the festival circuit,” Schonhardt says.
Having gear that can be sent around the country means MDCH can ensure a level of consistency across its broadcasts. A high-quality experience is crucial, Schonhardt explains. “We work with 5Stream as our major streaming partner nationally, so we want to ensure that we have that incredibly high-quality set-up, usually with four or five cameras and the broadcast quality audio equipment in place.”
As concert halls and venues reopen, Schonhardt sees a hybrid live and digital model emerging as the way of the future. “What we’re increasingly doing, particularly in Melbourne, is welcoming that live studio audience into the venue at the Athaneum 2, to watch the concerts, or partnering with other presenting organisations to livestream their concerts with a physical audience in place,” she says. “However, as we discovered there’s this audience who cannot get into venues, so it’s crucial that we continue to engage with them and continue to connect them with live music.”
The flexibility has also proved valuable for people with busy lives, with audience members who booked physical tickets often switching to digital, even up to the day of the concert – whether as a result of illness or other commitments that have come up – while MDCH allows concerts to be viewed up to 72 hours after they go live. “It’s very much a model for the modern age,” Schonhardt says.
The platform has also begun to expand beyond evening concerts. “We’re starting to work during the daytime with more educational organisations as well, to use that equipment that we’ve invested in – at the moment we’ve been showcasing the VCE Top Class kids, which has been fabulous, working with the Victorian Department of Education,” Schonhardt says. “We had a great concert on the weekend with the Melbourne Youth Orchestras and were able to share that concert, that was online only, with their family members and relatives.”
In addition to the festivals, as MDCH enters its second year upcoming highlights include a recital by pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska celebrating her new album of music by Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi, One Summer’s Day (presented by Dan Golding), concerts by the Australian Haydn Ensemble (as part of MDCH’s Live from City Recital Hall series), the Flinders Quartet, Trio Anima Mundi, the Australian National Academy of Music and MDCH’s ensemble in residence, the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, and many more.
The platform has been constantly expanding since its first livestream in March 2020, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. “We were created as a communal, collective response to the crisis and we continue to be a collective platform, and I guess what our goal is to become a national platform for performing arts in Australia and particularly for classical music, so that people can go online at any time during the week and they can find an incredible array of amazing concerts to choose from, be they in Darwin or Melbourne or wherever else.”
Schonhardt also has a larger goal in mind. “I’d like to continue that shift in consumer behaviour that we’re working to drive, by that I mean people being willing to pay for a concert and for that to become the normal thing to do – to sit down on a Thursday night and buy a $24 ticket and support musicians by watching a live concert,” she says. “I think we as a society – and I’m not just talking about in Australia – have drifted too far away from the artists themselves. They’re not at the centre of what we’re doing any more. You see it, for example, in audio platforms where they might earn a fraction of a cent for a stream of one of their songs or one of their pieces. I don’t know how we ended up in that position but I think it’s our responsibility to work to change that, because that’s just not viable for anyone.”
“So that’s incredibly important, that we continue to build this audience who are accustomed to paying for streaming content,” she says. “So that we continue to build this community and make this platform available to Australian performers into the future.”