WFIMC Café: Geoffrey John Davies

The Violin Channel´s founder and CEO talks about how one Youtube upload turned into the world´s leading classical music news platform

WFIMC:  It looks like The Violin Channel has become The String Channel, Piano Channel, Conducting Channel all at once?

Geoffrey John Davies: It´s all happening for us, for sure. Now that we´re officially in the piano world, competitions are coming up one after the other. We have a big streaming partnership with the Montreal International Piano Competition this month, we are speaking with Cliburn and Liszt, and many many others. Even the Concours de Genève has come on with their Voice edition this year. We´re certainly no longer just the “Violin Channel”…

Maybe a good time to look back at how it all started?

Sure. It all started in 2009, when I was still living in Australia. I had studied violin and viola at pre-college and college, but I ended up going to business school to study marketing and advertising. I always wanted to be working at Lincoln Center, or at the Barbican — that was my dream — but I ended up working in advertising and then later, in the financial services industry.  
And then came Facebook. Once social media started, I just began uploading music videos for fun...   

We heard that one of your first uploaded videos was a violin performance, which turned out to be the reason why you called your project “The Violin Channel.” What was that video exactly? 

I can't even remember exactly what it was. I think it was probably something I had recorded as a child on a VHS tape from Australian TV. Copyright wasn't my concern at the time, and I just put it up on YouTube. Since it was my first video, YouTube asked me to “name your channel.” So, I just called it “The Violin Channel.” 
The idea evolved further when Facebook started. Everyone was using it and beginning to put their personal life online: “I´m at the shops right now. These are my friends, this is my business, my dog, etc.” I immediately thought it could also be used like a magazine with each post being a bite of information. I was just playing around with Facebook, experimenting and enjoying myself. After a year or so, I had quite a following. At the same time, I decided to move to New York for initially just one year. I always wanted to live there! 

Did you plan on making it a business at the time?  

No, I don’t think so. My dream was to live in New York and get a job at Lincoln Center. But I decided to try this Violin Channel thing, which I had grown a following for. I was lucky to meet a couple of string companies who perhaps felt sorry for me and threw some advertising money at it to keep it going initially. I thought, well, maybe I can stay for six months and keep working on this Violin Channel thing full time. 

And it didn´t end after six months…

Next month, it will be 15 years since I started TVC. It´s come a long way, and it has been a very fun journey. 

Where do you position the Violin Channel among the other online classical news platforms?

We all do different things. Maybe The Strad and The Violin Channel are covering some of the same space, but we have different perspectives on it. We're very much about changing the industry, about the promotion of young artists, and all of news in the classical music industry, as a whole. I also think our streaming platform differentiates us quite significantly. 
What’s important is that we retain and grow our audience and make sure we all always stay relevant. We have good relationships with all the different outlets. At the end of the day, we all have the same mission. I don´t see it as competitive. 

Geographically, where is your audience located?

When you look at the website and VC’s social media, about 45% are from North America, and that´s probably because we started here, and we´re English speaking. Europe is around the 28%, and the rest is in Australasia and South America. But the figures are changing and evolving constantly, as we are now doing a lot more content and streaming in Europe. 

Do you still work with Weibo?

At this stage, the Chinese media is not a big focus for us. We definitely tried it. In China, is doing so well and we’ve been collaborating with them on many projects. We do have partnerships with Tianjin Juilliard and with major Chinese competitions and conservatories. Our goal is to bring their projects out of China and deliver them to the Western world. Our focus is not necessarily on Chinese coverage.  

Do you need a VPN to open the Violin Channel in China?

Not the site. The social media, yes.

Do you still work with X (Twitter)?

We do, but it´s not a high priority. We have to really focus on the most important channels. We are always experimenting, trying things. But our focus is very much on our website, Facebook, Instagram, and our e-mail newsletter. Individual content has to be customized before it can be used on the different mediums, as we have different audiences on each of those channels. 

Looking at the number of Facebook subscribers, has it begun to decrease or is it still growing?

It is still growing, but the audience has changed. We are still seeing great numbers when we stream on Facebook. A regular stream is still getting 10,000 to 15,000 views on it. Maybe people are not watching whole performances, but they are dropping in and are aware performances are happening. We are also seeing incredible numbers on Instagram with the clips we share from the streams. 

Can you let us know the numeber of subscribers for your newsletter?

We're constantly cleaning it up to make sure that's a completely clean list, but it's over 130,000 now, and the open rates are very, very high. Some other outlet’s newsletters have no more than 5% open rates, but ours are sometimes as high as 39%. 

You now have 17 people working for you. Can you tell us about the team? 

We have a core team here in New York, but we also have writers all around the world. Maybe it´s because I´m from Australia, but we recruited for writers in Australia and New Zealand some time ago, so we have a writing team there. It basically means that we can literally work around the clock. When we finish here at 5:00 PM in New York, we´re briefing our articles to our team in Australia and New Zealand. They wake up in the morning, and they have the whole day to write their articles, before we come back to the office in New York at 9:00 AM the next day. 
But besides the writers, we also have senior, experienced consultants to help us navigate various issues. Our editorial consultant is David Masello, an experienced editor who has written for The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal and others. Benjamin Woodroffe has joined our team consulting for Europe partnerships, and David Katzive, an acclaimed video producer and curator, is our Creative Director for the Vanguard Concerts Series. 

So it´s really become a full-fledged company now. You once mentioned you were so busy you didn´t have time to cook, so you went out to eat every night and used your stove only to store Diet Coke and coffee pods.  

I still do, but I don´t drink Diet Coke anymore. I do drink coffee though…

At some point, you mentioned you were thinking of launching “The Piano Channel,” but it seems like The Violin Channel has just opened up for all the other instruments. How quickly is the balance changing towards other instruments? 

In the beginning, we were discussing separate channels for strings, piano, voice, using the same content model. But in the end, we realized it was easier to put everything together and only have one Violin Channel which can cover the most top-end, relevant events and news of the entire classical music industry. 
At the moment, we are really busy in the piano world. We already livestreamed the Horowitz Competition last year, followed by Honens, the Gilmore, Vendome and American Pianists Association Awards. This month, we´ll be covering and streaming the Montreal Piano Competition, and then we’re in Brussels at the Queen Elisabeth Competition, and even to Geneva later this year for their vocal competition.  
It´s never been just about the violin, it was always string-focused. Now it´s much more, and it´s still expanding. At this stage, a Trumpet competition might be a bit of a stretch, but who knows what will happen in the future. 

How many competitions do you travel to yourself?

We really want to focus on the competitions that are making a difference, creating career opportunities, and finding great artists. We don´t have representatives at every competition we are covering, but I personally visit around six competitions a year. Personally, I love competitions! 

Have you been asked to be on juries?

I have, but I always decline it. I don´t see it as my role. My role is to disseminate the news, and I love working with all these young artists, many of whom I have personal friendships with. So I´m not going to be judging them on a jury anytime soon. 

One of your signature projects is The Violin Channel’s Vanguard Concerts. Can you tell us a bit more about them? 

The Vanguard Concerts was a project that came to us at the beginning of Covid. The Alphadyne Foundation helped us create this series, which was really a dream come true for me, personally. Not only was I able to curate all of my favorite artists and put them together in various formations. It became more about creating an episode about each artist, in TV quality, with all kinds of visuals and background footage. 
Take violinist Stella Chen, for example. She had just won Queen Elisabeth, and she really wanted to perform Bartok´s “Chaconne,” which is not an easy piece for an audience member to listen to. But she was really passionate about it and did a lot of research: she went to the Carnegie Hall archives, where Menuhin premiered the piece; she took photographs of the original programs. Also, when Bartók wrote it, he was in New York, linking each section of the piece to a particular place in the city, so we went around and captured video footage of that. Then, there is footage of the 1940s when the work was premiered. Many different aspects came together and make for a splendid interactive experience in this Vanguard Concert. 
At the moment, we are talking with a couple of foundations in Europe to continue the project and produce more content like this. But there is one other aspect: the artists in the video own 50% of the rights on everything. They have unlimited access to use the footage for their own marketing and promotion, plus they will be constantly paid if the concert is to be shown anywhere on TV or other platforms. 
Across all platforms, the first Vanguard series had well over 5 Million views. It was an astonishing project. 

All things considered, things look quite promising for the future….

We just want to keep moving forward, and grow naturally and organically. For this year, we are looking at new partnerships with international festivals, and with schools including the Curtis Institute, New England Conservatory, and the Kronberg Academy. We´ll be doing a lot of streaming all over the planet. But who knows where we will be in a few years from now? The future is unwritten, but I also feel like there are no limits as to what we might be able to do. I feel we are just scratching the surface of what what’s to come.