Encore! How the New York Philharmonic became a content management maestro

Profile picture for user cmiddleton By Chris Middleton April 27, 2017
The New York Philharmonic orchestra is deploying content management and archiving technology to create harmony with the paying public.

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 imaginative use of its content management and archiving system.

Today, most enterprises measure success in the here and now, while investing in the future and keeping an eye on their legacies, but for the New York Philharmonic – the oldest of America’s ‘big five’ orchestras, founded in 1842 – the past, present, and future are one and the same thing, thanks to a comprehensive digital archiving strategy.

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

That deepens the orchestra’s engagement with the public until it becomes a symphony of rich data: CDOs take note.

The Phil’s archive contains everything from digital copies of old programmes and marked-up scores to the audio/video recordings of entire performances. These can be dynamically linked and cross-referenced within the organisation – and by the public when sections of the archive are released online. The orchestra’s business records are part of this asset management programme too.

This treasure trove of information dates back to the orchestra’s mid-19th Century beginnings as the Philharmonic Society of New York, and (among many other things) documents its relationships with Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, and ‘the maestro’, Arturo Toscanini – under whose leadership the orchestra emerged as a potent international force.

The Phil has just 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, logistical documents, posters, movie clips, original marked scores, and hundreds of orchestral parts. To have accessed any of this material in the analog past would have meant visiting the orchestra in New York.

Data strategy

But while it’s easy to think of archives as being focused on history in this way, many – like the New York Philharmonic’s – document the present from every perspective, too, and need to keep doing so long into the future. That demands foresight, good management, a clear data strategy, and a technology that can grow, adapt, and scale: a vote in favour of open source.

In many senses, then, the archive is the organisation, and its musicians and support staff its active champions and custodians. Barbara Haws is the orchestra’s chief archivist. She explains:

Our narrative is in the content itself. And that story wouldn’t be there 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.

The benefits of the open-source Alfresco content management system feed back into the orchestra itself, she says:

Musicians tell us that having access to these parts cuts the time that they would usually have to spend getting ready for performing with the orchestra by days.

I was at a concert last year, when a young conductor nearly leapt across a couple of rows of audience members to say, ‘I have to give you a hug. I was asked to step in for a conductor in Milwaukee, and I was conducting a work that I really didn’t know, and I went on the digital archive and was able to look at Leonard Berstein’s mark-up. It saved my life.’

The orchestra’s day-to-day work needs to be considered in the carefully managed and planned-for context of how it got here and where it is going. Says Haws:

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

The Phil has learned that the concept of ‘now’ should be about much more than today’s obsession with instant gratification; ‘now’ is really just a stage in an ongoing narrative that stretches from the past into the future. Haws explains that she came to this realisation when she joined the orchestra in a resonant year for technology, 1984:

When I was finishing archive school in the 80s, I was reading a magazine that talked about the first PC. That was just mind blowing: it changed completely my understanding of where we were going based on how I had been trained. I could see the possibilities in the future. At the Philharmonic, I was the first staff member to have a PC on my desk. And we started creating the databases of our performance history.

Not making a bet on the present and planning ahead for new technologies and is an important lesson for any organization, she says:

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 photographs and scan them again.


It was 20 years later that her vision to digitise all of the orchestra’s assets started to become a reality, when the Phil began its relationship with Alfresco. That massive programme of digitisation is ongoing today. The orchestra also works with software partner TSG, whose Open Migrate technology allows them to move the metadata and content into Alfresco and makes it available on the front end.

Music and technology have always existed in a symbiotic relationship. But planning for each technology generation is a different matter: that’s where enterprise content management comes in.

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

But 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, rejected social platforms, closed accounts, corrupt cloud storage, and more. This generation may record more than any previous one in history, and yet have far less to show for it.

Scale that problem up to enterprise level and you have some idea of the challenge facing an organization like the New York Philharmonic, which wants to record today and carry its historic legacy consistently into tomorrow.

Kevin Schlottmann is the Phil’s Digital Archives Manager. He says:

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 of what’s being done. But the actual tools to do that are probably going to look a little 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.

In the digital realm there is a real ‘presentism’, everybody wants the latest and greatest – there’s a new format that comes along, a new piece of software... Our job is to be aware of where that technology is going and to ensure that we can preserve as best we can ahead of what’s happening.

Beyond annotated scores from the Toscanini years, for example, the “heart and soul” of the orchestra is the audio, says Haws. Schlottmann adds:

There has never been a good, permanent audiovisual format. We have always been migrating materials. You can’t just put it in a box in 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 think of or want to fund.

Haws explains that the digital realm has also brought new challenges to the concept of archiving:

In our definition, archiving means forever. In the early days of rolling out Microsoft Word in the 90s, we had a real panic that the tech world hasn’t really grasped what archiving meant.

What’s interesting today about Alfresco is their versioning control: how do you know that something that was created in, say, 2002, hasn’t been revised? And what was revised? So for archivists, versioning control is really vital in trying to maintain what the original is.

My take

Maintaining an original is what the New Philharmonic is doing with its digitisation, 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 worldwide, by the Phil’s marketing, public relations, development, and back-end business departments.

And by its 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 team member ask for? Music, maestro, please.