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Classical a hit online

Anastassia Boutsko/gnbNovember 27, 2013

Pianist Valentina Lisitsa's success story is unusual in the world of classical music; her online videos featuring works by Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov have attracted clicks in the millions. DW examines the phenomenon.

ARCHIV - ILLUSTRATION - Auf einem Laptop ist in Berlin das Internet-Videoportal YouTube zusehen, aufgenommen am 20.07.2012. Der Bundesgerichtshof (BGH) in Karlsruhe verhandelt darüber, ob das Einbinden von You-Tube-Videos in eine Website Urheberrechte verletzt. Foto: Uli Deck/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Cologne Philharmonic is only half full on this evening. Admittedly, another star pianist would have been able to sell out this prestigious venue. And the usual gray-haired, well-heeled visitors are virtually nowhere to be seen.

Instead, it's a much younger, mixed crowd: a biker couple, a goth and plenty of youngsters in jeans. Many have come with flowers. One young man sits in the second row with a perfect view of the stage and films the concert with his smartphone. Performing tonight, a vision in pink and blonde: Valentina Lisitsa, a musician made famous thanks to Youtube.

It's clicks that count

She was a 33-year-old pianist of the Russian School, with both a small child and a stagnating career, when she uploaded her first video to YouTube in 2007. In the video, Lisitsa played a Rachmaninov etude filmed by a shaky camera. "YouTube was something completely new back then. It was full of pirate videos," remembers Lisitsa, "I was one of the first to upload something original and legal. I wanted to find my audience."

And it worked: Lisitsa's online popularity skyrocketed. She constantly uploaded new material and soon started her own YouTube channel. These days, it has around 120,000 thousand subscribers accounting for some 62 million clicks. "That's around 50,000 people a day. In other words, I'm playing to a full football stadium on a daily basis!" says Lisitsa, whose virtual popularity surpasses some of her more famous peers.

Ukraine-born classical pianist Valentina Lisitsa performs live on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London on June 19, 2012. The Internet sensation and virtuoso pianist who lives in he US made her debut appearance at the Royal Albert Hall on June 19 in a performance which was also streamed online. AFP PHOTO / ANDREW COWIE (Photo credit should read Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages)
Image: Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages

Motivating fans with Tweets

"For me the internet was just an advertising platform - more or less just a glossy brochure," says Lisitsa, who holds an American passport. "But it's my aim to use it to get people into the concert halls."

So the celebrated pianist made the jump offline and played in Royal Albert Hall in front of an audience of 5,500 fans who traveled to London from all over the world. Looking for interviewees for a BBC report, the pianist tweeted to her fans: "After my message looking for people to be interviewed by the BBC, 138 people from 30 countries got in touch. Not bad!"

Anyone who has experienced a live concert just once becomes a repeat offender, says the pianist. "Nothing in the world can replace the experience of a live concert. It's a magical moment when music is created and my audience and I go off on a journey together to another dimension."

Classical for the future

Several observers of the scene believe the Lisitsa Phenomenon represents the future of the classical music fan; highly individual when it comes to listening habits, always on the look out for new information and highly critical of music industry blanket advertising. News of the "pianist with soul," as one of her fans calls her, is distributed exclusively through social networks.

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 21: Musician Valentina Lisitsa attends the celebration of Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Camps at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center on October 21, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

In the meantime, the music industry is attempting to surf this wave of success by marketing the now 40-year-old Lisista as a new-born star - perhaps an indictment that industry experts didn't discover the pianist sooner.

The Lisitsa Phenomenon isn't just an unusual success story. It's also encouragement for countless other new and as yet-unknown musicians from all over the world to take their careers into their own hands and use the internet as a tool to promote themselves beyond the borders of their own countries.