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New York Philharmonic's classical approach to a digital content strategy

A years-long digitization project is paying off with the release of Toscanini material as the orchestra opens archives dating back to 1842 to a wider viewing audience.

You think Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus were the first musicians to throw shade at each other? Not even close.

Way before the advent of Twitter beefs between pop culture icons, the legendary conductors of the New York Philharmonic were mixing it up on paper. Arturo Toscanini wrote on page one of the score to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony that predecessor Gustav Mahler's previously marked changes (deleting some notes, doubling others with extra instruments and adding dynamics) were "unworthy of such a musician." Later, a third party, who didn't have the chutzpah to reveal his identity, dissed the both of them, writing in Latin, nomina stultorum sunt ubique locorum ("the names of fools appear everywhere").

It's fun stuff like this that's included in the latest release of the 175-year-old symphony's archives, titled "Toscanini Era 1925-45," which is part of an ongoing digitization of content dating back to the symphony's inaugural 1842 concert. The fifth release in six years, this batch comprises 1,300 folders of documents -- 70,000 pages in total, 12 marked scores and 200 related parts.

It's all part of a digital content strategy to open the archives to a wider viewing audience, and the Philharmonic is seeing patrons, fans, scholars and even musicians in other orchestras using the content.

That latter group fascinates New York Philharmonic's chief archivist, Barbara Haws. Violinists, for example, will look to see how their predecessors bowed certain parts.

"We only put up parts marked up by the Philharmonic musicians and conductors," she said. "Those bowings save other musicians in other places a tremendous amount of time ... we find they have a real practical value for getting musicians to play together, [and] not just scholarly value."

Decades in the making

The symphony's digital content strategy, which requires digitizing scores, programs and ephemeral paper content and uploading it to an open source Alfresco Software Ltd. content management system, started 20 years ago. It took a lot of time and the pooling of donations from sponsors, such as the Leon Levy Foundation, after which the project is named, to get the first release up on the web in 2011.

At first, the biggest challenge was adding details to content to explain from whence it came.

"They lost sense of the context the document fit in," Haws said. "You'd have a whole page of JPEGs, but they wouldn't be linked to each other. You'd have to close one and open another."

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, with notes from Arturo Toscanini
The New York Philharmonic is currently digitizing content from its archives, including this page from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which includes a note from conductor Arturo Toscanini criticizing one of his predecessors. Image courtesy of New York Philharmonic.

The archive now employs a book reader viewing utility that adds more context and helps lead users into more related documents that show the relationships between them. This is part of an effort to create a digital experience replicating that of a researcher in the orchestra's physical reading room; one who might have several related documents open at once to take in more detail about a performance or particular piece of music than an individual document might provide.

The vast collateral material to the musical scores and programs includes all the 20th century newspaper articles a press clipping service gathered -- and that the Philharmonic saved in scrapbooks -- which adds depth of context the orchestra's original material might not have revealed. The clippings were scheduled for disposal after they were shot for microfiche in the 1970s, but the nonprofit decided to hang onto them, just in case a better format came along. That decision ended up being critical to enriching the current archive.

"We're going back to the originals, shooting them in color," said Kevin Schlottmann, New York Philharmonic's digital archives manager. "We're going to be able to do OCR [optical character recognition] on them, we're going to be able to take individual articles and attach metadata to them."

We're going to be able to do OCR on them, we're going to be able to take individual articles and attach metadata to them.
Kevin Schlottmanndigital archives manager, New York Philharmonic

As the use of the free archive continues to expand, traffic analytics has shown some interesting trends: Traffic drops off around holidays and during breaks consistent with academia, leading Haws and Schlottmann to believe its user base tilts toward the scholarly. Site visitors come from all over the world; most often the United States, followed by the United Kingdom and Japan.

While symphonic orchestras are declining in popularity in the U.S., new symphonies are launching throughout the world, which may explain some of the traffic, which expanded by 20% in 2016 over the previous year.

However, some oddities can't yet be explained. For example, "It's a conundrum to us why Bernstein's score of the Messiah is so popular in Kiev," Haws said with a laugh.

Tips for taking on such a project

Having gone through this large, long-term content digitization project, which will likely continue for years to come, Haws and Schlottmann offer advice for peers at for-profits and nonprofits who may embark on similar paths.

Get more than short-term funding in order. Avoiding what Schlottmann calls "the hamster-wheel cycle" of getting funding every few months is especially crucial for nonprofits, but it is also an important part of any large content project.

Having to get reupped frequently to keep moving is, at worst, a recipe for failure. At best, it gets in the way of digitizing content, and also doesn't give the online content repository enough time to be noticed and utilized. Look for, at minimum, six months to a year of funding to get a project off the ground; although, ideally, a team would be granted more.

Make the system modular. For the New York Philharmonic, Alfresco is the back end, with Apache Solr index running the site search, and separate applications managing the website and the document viewer.

Separating the content archives into these four components offers the organization the opportunity to upgrade one without sacrificing the others if a better tool comes along in the future. It's also a way to accommodate future format types, such as the audio and video the orchestra plans to upload down the road.

Release content in logical batches. Getting people to explore content archives starts with giving them something interesting to look at, which won't happen if an organization has nothing to announce because random content goes live at irregular intervals.

The orchestra's digital content strategy involves choosing logical sets of content to build excitement around a particular piece of its history, starting with the "Leonard Bernstein era: 1943-70."

The current release, for example, celebrates the 150th birthday of Toscanini, whose eidetic memory earned him the moniker genius, and who might be the most legendary among the Mount Rushmore of conductors who have taken the baton for the group.

Publicize those releases. This, Haws admits, is still a work in progress, although she noted that the archives site recently passed the millionth user milestone. Haws said it's important to reach out to your audience, whatever your content project is ... because they aren't going to learn about all your great content through osmosis.

"When we first started, we just assumed that we put it up, it's free, there's no login required, we're the New York Philharmonic, so of course we just assumed that everybody pays attention. There was a huge piece in the New York Times around the launch of this, and yet, people didn't come," Haws said. "What we realized is that academic librarians, who make all kinds of referrals of sites to scholars and professors in their institutions, didn't pay attention to our site because it was free. They pay attention more to things they have to buy."

Promotion for Haws therefore meant creating awareness at U.S. and international library conferences and association meetings by exhibiting as a vendor.

"Our numbers rose amazingly. You can't assume people are going to find you. You have to be kind of aggressive."

Next Steps

Gauging the effectiveness of a digital content strategy

Making digital content accessible, findable and searchable

The human side of content strategy

This was last published in July 2017

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