If I Build It, Will They Come?

Kathy Geisler
Jul 14 · 5 min read
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The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Beijing, People’s Republic of China

For the past few years (well maybe a couple more than that), I have been working on a start up site called Mozart’s List. It’s a niche site devoted to the business side of classical music. It has a business directory to rival anything out there, classifieds, employment listings, events, and more, all set inside of a social network. This is something like the fifth iteration, I’ve lost count. There was always something better to do, some new tool, advances in some version of software, and mostly a continual expansion of my understanding of what needed to be there. After all, this is for the field of classical music and there are a lot of discerning eyes, critics with good suggestions (hopefully constructive ones), and a big need to fill, at least that is what I see.

Think about the violin, which was perfect as of 300 years ago and is iconic to classical music. Now try to think of things existing today that have not had to be improved over the last 300 years, I mean besides spaghetti. For me, part of the challenge of doing this, making Mozart’s List worthy of the field, has been the need to get it right. And getting it ‘right’ is part of the training in classical music. It is supposed to take years. It’s an art, one of those never ending journeys.

I’ve heard so many times about start ups, just get it out there, you have to see if people want it before you go all in. But that would be wrong for this. We aren’t talking about putting together teams online, or some new way to search (although search plays a big part of how Mozart’s List works). People in classical music have been putting together teams for hundreds of years, way before Silicon Valley or anyone in corporate America have been in the game. Orchestras, chamber music, opera, and their audiences — classical musicians practically invented the concert, the concert hall, acoustics in audio, how to make an instrument sound in a room, in a hall, in a bigger hall, and how to make that instrument work together with other instruments. You can map the history of science and math across classical music. Stuart Isacoff did this in his book ‘Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization.’

Classical music has so much history that bringing it into a usable online format requires a lot of care and respect for the craft and its past. This project, Mozart’s List, was always going to require a customization that almost certainly would never be enough, because the variety of people and positions in the field of classical music and support services is so completely diverse. And well, that was the challenge, at times overwhelming, how to merge an understanding on an objective level of the needs of the business of classical music with some kind of online tool that might really make a difference and connect people without minimizing the craft and actually bring something useful to the table.

Yes, there are already several really good and effective social networks where people are connecting about things, and its been an interesting lesson on how people communicate on the various platforms, but unless you are promoting something, there isn’t a place to find that next great photographer or place to live that is friendly to classical music — there are so many stories about pianists having problems with neighbors for example. And what about just having a place to list books on classical music (one that isn’t Amazon) from authors and publishers all over the world. It’s important to be able to have a place online that encourages business and networking for classical music and the many things specific to the vast field that it is.

There are hundreds of music schools around the world with thousands of students, teachers, and don’t get me started on musicologists, they are everywhere doing the good work of keeping research and thoughts about music alive. Classical music is going strong in the lives of many and Mozart’s List brings it all together. You can make listings for instrument makers, apprentices, people who work in administration and the back stage of theaters, all the ancillary jobs, classifieds related to all things classical—it goes on and on with about 300 categories across the site. Everyone and everything is essential. And so Mozart’s List is inclusive of the entire field, accessible to everyone from the enthusiast to the professional.

I can’t tell anymore if this is passion or an obsession.

Part of the reason I wanted to do this is because ever since I can remember classical music has been this odd marginalized thing. Maybe not quite as much in Europe, but certainly in the United States. It took Apple iTunes a while to figure out how to integrate classical music into their system. Sony had to find a way to put Yo Yo Ma into Apple’s system that was built around the three to five minute pop song. And once it all got worked out, there were several other levels of integration that had to be dealt with—all that confusing meta data that didn’t fit in with popular music (i.e. conductor, soloist, orchestra, composer, movement number, opus number, movement name, genre within classical music, aria or recitative, language, period–just to name a few), then it had to be figured out all over again with Amazon (which had a totally different way of intaking meta data and digital content, as well as with other early download services). They were all built for that one size fits all pop music ‘song.’ The major labels had their hands full trying to get thousands of classical music recordings online, their complete historic archive catalogs, but only after the popular genres had been digitized (and was it just mp3 or something more? What were we getting ourselves into?) And just when there seemed to be some new stability, then came Spotify and it was like Napster all over again. You could see the whole industry filtering through some portal (was there going to be life after death?) The major labels had to bow down to these services, and in case you didn’t know, classical music production was supported by the sales of the big pop music artists. So when the majors had lost a large source of their income, classical music was the loser too.

It’s just part of the story of how people in the field of classical music have largely been left to their own devices. The problems were everywhere in the classical music eco-system. In the United States even the big orchestras have been on the brink of bankruptcy. In Europe, if the government or municipality decided to no longer pay the bill, the whole orchestra could be gone overnight. So what to do?

Mozart’s List is not the answer to these issues, but it is a way to begin building an infrastructure that has been missing. And maybe out of that will come new ideas for the classical music community.

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