The Digital Phil

Why the New York Philharmonic is a digital maestro


Chris Middleton reports on how one of the world’s top orchestra’s is bringing past and present together online.

Enterprise technology might seem to be an unlikely soloist in a world-class symphony orchestra, but all organisations could learn about customer engagement from the New York Philharmonic’s use of content management and digital archiving.

Most enterprises measure success in the here and now, but for ‘the Phil’ – the oldest of America’s big five orchestras, founded in 1842 – the past, present, and future are one and the same thing, thanks to its digital archiving strategy.

Via this and a bespoke content management system, the Phil’s archivists are changing the way people engage with the orchestra today, not only providing musicians, scholars, researchers, journalists, and fans dynamic access to a living, breathing entity, but also unparalleled insight into the classical repertoire.

The Phil’s archive contains everything from digital copies of old programmes and marked-up scores to audio/video recordings of entire performances. These can be dynamically linked and cross-referenced online. In this way, the orchestra’s relationship with the public is a symphony of rich data.

A way-back machine

This treasure trove of information dates back to the orchestra’s mid-19th Century beginnings as the Philharmonic Society of New York, and documents its relationships with Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, and ‘the maestro’ Arturo Toscanini – under whose leadership the Phil emerged as a potent international force. In March 2017, the Phil published its Toscanini assets online to celebrate what would have been his 150th birthday. This section alone covers 70,000 pages of history, including reviews, handwritten notes, posters, movie clips, scores, and hundreds of orchestral parts.

But while most of us think of archives as being focused on history, many – like the Phil’s – document the present from every perspective, too, and need to keep doing so long into the future. This demands a clear data strategy and a technology that can adapt and scale: a vote in favour of open source systems, like the Alfresco application the Phil has deployed.

In many senses, then, the archive is the organisation, as chief archivist Barbara Haws explains: “Our narrative is in the content itself. And that story wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have the underlying technology working properly. This is largest continuous stream of performance history by a single entity in the world.

“Being a trained archivist, a lot of times I get accused of living in the past. But actually archivists live far into the future – at least 100 years into the future, in fact. What we’re constantly considering, and what’s important to us, is describing what we do as an organisation and leaving a proper record for people to understand 100 years from now.”

Look to the future now

Planning ahead for new technologies is an important lesson for any enterprise, she explains: “There was seminal moment in the 80s where all of our press scrapbooks, dating back to the late 19th Century, had been given over to the New York Public Library to be microfilmed. They asked, ‘Would you like these back? Because normally we would throw them away.’ That was standard procedure back then. But immediately I said we want those back because, eventually, we’re going to digitise our photographs and scan them again.”

These are serious concerns for any organisation. Most people who are in their 30s or older have physical audit trails of their lives and those of their families. Like the orchestra’s, these records may stretch back centuries. Paper is a durable technology: kept in an acid-free box, it might survive for 500 years, perhaps for millennia.

But for younger people, the situation is very different. While ‘millennials’ may endlessly document and share their lives on mobile devices, many live in a fragile present of lost phones, old tablets, broken drives, forgotten passwords, abandoned social platforms, closed accounts, and corrupt cloud storage. This generation may record more than any previous one in history, and yet have less to show for it in the long run.

Scale that problem up to enterprise level and you have some idea of the challenge facing an organisation like the New York Philharmonic. Kevin Schlottmann is the Phil’s Digital Archives Manager. He says: “In the digital realm, there is a real ‘presentism’: everybody wants the latest and greatest, and there’s always a new format that comes along, a new piece of software.

“Our job is to be aware of where technology is going and ensure that we can preserve things as best we can, ahead of what’s happening.”

“We’re always concerned about the long term. Most of the stuff that’s being created today by the Philharmonic is in digital form, and our end goal is to preserve a reasonable record. But the actual tools to do that are probably going to look different in the future. We’re looking at the digital legacy of the Philharmonic and how we can set that up for the next 20, 50, 100 years.”

Beyond the annotated scores from the Toscanini years, the heart and soul of the orchestra is its audio archive. Schlottmann says: “There has never been a good, permanent audiovisual format. We’re constantly migrating our materials. You can’t just put it in a box on a shelf and walk away for 100 years. You have to be aware of what you have and where the technology is going, and figure out how you can leverage your limited resources. Archives are never the first thing that people want to fund!”

Fresh thinking

Haws explains that the digital realm has also brought new challenges to the concept of archiving: “In our definition, archiving means forever. But in the early days of rolling out Microsoft Word in the 90s, we had a real panic that the tech world hadn’t really grasped what archiving meant. But what’s interesting today about Alfresco [the Phil’s technology partner] is the versioning control. How do you know that something created in, say, 2002, hasn’t been revised since then? And what was revised? For archivists, versioning control is vital in trying to maintain the original.”

‘Maintaining an original’ is certainly what the New Philharmonic is doing with its digital archiving and content management programme. And the benefits of this organisation-wide strategy are being felt internally and externally: by the public, by researchers and musicians across the world, and by the Phil’s marketing, public relations, and back-end business departments.

And by its own musicians. Veteran players can look back on what they did with the Philharmonic 30 or 40 years ago, even down to the individual parts they played. What more could any musician ask for? Music, maestro, please!

• This article was first published by diginomica.

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© Chris Middleton 2017