This interview appeared on The Music Void on 16 February 2010.

The Music Void’s Chris McLellan spoke recently with Juliana Farha, Managing Director of London-based classical website Dilettante, which launched in 2008.

A trained journalist, Juliana Farha worked at Canada’s CBC Radio and Watch magazine in Toronto before joining the family business in the musical instruments sector.

After obtaining her Masters degree at Goldsmiths College, University of London, Juliana identified the Internet and social media as the ideal tools to support classical music and grow the audience for the genre. Dilettante is the embodiment of those ideas.

Hi Juliana. Thanks for meeting with The Music Void today. Can you provide our readers with a brief overview of Dilettante?

Certainly.  Dilettante is a classical music hub with a community of musicians and listeners at its heart. On Dilettante you can buy music and concert tickets, read news and reviews, post your own concerts, join discussions and more. The site was conceived with two goals: first, to support musicians and music-making by providing a platform for their work and for the classical genre; and second, to grow the audience for classical music. Obviously, those goals are related since you support music-making by engaging new audiences.

The site was designed and built with these goals in mind. We’re not aiming to make classical music ‘cool’ or dumbing it down, but Dilettante’s fresh, lively tone is aimed at bringing a different sensibility – and even a different vocabulary – to classical music. At the same time, we felt that we wouldn’t be doing musicians much of a service by simply providing them with a new set of social media tools to profile themselves. We needed to create practical reasons why listeners would come to the site, hence value-adds such as our price comparison tool. On Dilettante you can check prices across four retailers, learn about works and artists, read user reviews and ‘expert’ comments, and so on.

What is the nature of the Dilettante business model?

The Dilettante business model leverages multiple revenue streams to support our community of musicians and listeners.

We generate income from three main sources:

1/ Advertising revenue; 2/ commissions from music sales across two specialist and two mass-market retailers, supported by reviews, discussions, celebrity playlists and other guidance; and 3/ from commissions from ticket sales in partnership with classical ticketing vendors

Dilettante is a micro-economy sustained by transactions that are a natural part of site activity. For instance, Facebook might not feel like an obvious place to buy a t-shirt, but a classical music community is an obvious place to buy a CD or concert tickets.

As Dilettante has grown the site has become established as a credible and trusted brand for classical music, but one that is also refreshing, unstuffy and modern. And as a niche site, we offer advertisers access to a highly-targeted and well-educated audience. That’s one reason why we’ve secured advertising in a really tough market from record labels such as Chandos, EMI and Sony Classical.

In your opinion, is the classical genre fairly represented on the major online music stores?

Tough question! As I’ve said, we offer music through affiliate partnerships with four retailers, including two mass-market and two specialist shops. Music sales is a volume game, and digital content makes the long-tail model more viable since you’re no longer talking about shelf-space. In that sense, major music store sites have an advantage over high street shops.

Where the major retailers stumble, I think, is around practical issues such as metadata, and the lack of consistency from the labels themselves is a problem. You can find a needle in a haystack on Amazon, for instance, but you really need to know what you’re looking for. In fact, I buy a lot of discs through Amazon, but their classical search is appalling, and not made to handle the fact that a single work is recorded multiple times by different artists, so it’s not just Animal Collective playing Animal Collective.

Similarly, the major retailers can’t offer meaningful editorial context that a lot of new or casual classical listeners would find useful. Why buy this performance of The Nutcracker Suite and not that one? I love Bolero, but what else did Ravel write? Those holes provide a huge opportunity for value-adds such as a strong search function supported by editorial guidance. That’s the opportunity we’ve seized at Dilettante.

What is your social media strategy? Are you working with or through Facebook or Twitter, for example?

Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are vital elements of our social media strategy. In fact, it’s difficult to operate in the digital space without using them in a meaningful and sustained way.

While Dilettante has significant social networking functionality, we consider ourselves to be part of the classical music community, not simply an interface for it. As such we have a distinct voice in the digital environment, and the way we communicate on Twitter is as much a part of our identity as the way we communicate on the Dilettante site.

On a purely practical level, both Twitter and Facebook have proved to be an invaluable way of creating buzz about what’s new on Dilettante, and projects we’re involved with. Of course, Twitter is a social space too, so we’ve developed Twitter relationships with lots of people and organisations in the classical world.

Needless to say, our next step is to implement an OpenID system, and that’s something we’re working on with our developers. We’re aiming to be fully connected.

In what ways does Dilletante support live classic concerts and sales?

First, it’s important to be clear that we don’t regard the Internet as some sort of parallel universe to the offline world, and we don’t want or expect classical music activity to move online. Classical music is all about the live experience, not just an activity musicians undertake to support a CD. Thanks to digital piracy and the decline in music purchasing, that’s becoming increasingly true in the pop world, but it’s always been true in classical.

We support live performance in a variety of ways.  First – at its most basic – any Dilettante member can post their events on our events calendar, including links to tickets. Members can invite their Dilettante connections, and link their event back to their member profile so people can find out more about them – very useful if you’re a young ensemble, just starting out. That means a concert by an unknown chamber group can sit right next to a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, so the two get equal billing.

We do our utmost to support our members’ concerts, so we can feature their events on the site and in our monthly Music & Events newsletter. Of course, there are number of editorial options, too. If there’s a really innovative programme or a group doing really interesting work, we offer feature interviews or profiles on the site, along with celebrity playlists and other kinds of editorial promotion.

Also, we’re looking at ways we can support live performance more actively. For instance, in 2008 we co-produced a concert in a club in Brick Lane in East London. Last year, we launched our Digital Composer-in-Residence competition, which culminated in a live performance of the finalists’ submissions by the London Sinfonietta at Wilton’s Music Hall. And one element of the winner’s prize is a live concert next Autumn featuring a work that was composed during the year-long residency.

With an aging population in the West, one might expect a rise in the popularity of the classical genre. Is that true in your experience?

I think there are a few factors affecting the popularity of the classical genre. You’re right that an aging population might listen to more classical music. There’s also the success of stations like ClassicFM in the UK. Some people claim they dumb-down classical music, but they also demystify it and bring it to a wider audience. I don’t see a reason to be snobbish about that.

At the same time, we’ve seen the rise of a lot of young composers and musicians who don’t talk or think about ‘genre’ in such narrow terms, from someone like Nico Muhly, who seems to come out of the classical world but works across genres, to a classically trained musician like Jonny Greenwood who came to prominence as an alt-pop musician and now performs alongside John Adams in New York.

We see that in the UK, too. Look at Mira Calix or Anna Meredith. Is it electronica or classical? There’s lots of jargon floating around that reflects this shift – ‘music without borders’ from New Amsterdam records in Brooklyn, ‘alt-classical’ from Greg Sandow at Arts Journal, ‘post-classical’ from I don’t remember who! I think this phenomenon gives younger listeners a different point of access that might lead them to more ‘traditional’ classical music, some of which is pretty out there. I mean, the Goldberg Variations are a real trip (see 8 below).

Is the rising popularity of so-called ‘cross over’ artists like Andrea Bocelli and Kathryn Jenkins good news for the classical genre?

I’m not sure it’s good or bad news. To the extent that these artists’ CDs sell, I suppose they help sustain the business. Do they introduce new audiences to classical music, and will those audiences go on to buy more classical music? I don’t think there’s any evidence to support that view.

What recordings would you recommend to classical music novices to give them a sample of best from the genre?

There are many of course, but here are a few of my favourites

Quatuor Ebene
– Debussy, Faure, Ravel String Quartets
This disc picked up Gramophone’s Recording of the Year prize last year, and it’s a wonderful introduction to three great French composers and four dynamic young performers.

Daniel Hope – Air: A Baroque Journey
I’ve seen Daniel Hope live several times, including with the now-defunct Beaux Arts Trio, and he’s a wonderful player. This disc is exactly what it sounds like – an engaging primer that’s a delight to listen to.

Simone Dinnerstein – Bach, Goldberg Variations
Per above, the Goldberg Variations are a real trip, and Simone Dinnerstein’s performance is brilliant. Wear headphones, and listen loud.

Alfred Brendel – Schubert Complete Impromptus D.899 & D.935 and Others
As always, Brendel gets every note right and captures Schubert’s grace and majesty.

Nigel Kennedy – Bruch & Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos
Two brilliant works that are a must for any novice listener. I’m never sure which concerto I prefer, but I always go back to Nigel Kennedy’s performance.

Beaux Arts Trio – Piano Trio No 4 in E Minor ‘Dumky’
I love Dvorak and this is one of my all time favourites – if it doesn’t break your heart there’s something wrong with you.

Miguel del Aguila – Salon Buenos Aires
I discovered this through a review by Frank Oteri at New Music Box. On the strength of one track, I bought it instantly, and can’t stop listening to it.

Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians
I heard this live at the Royal Festival Hall last October – performed by the London Sinfonietta – and was totally blown away.

That’s a great list Juliana. Thanks for sharing that and all your thoughts on classical music and Dilettante today.

It’s been my pleasure.