Interview with David Zsoldos (CEO of Papageno, President of the Hungarian Music Council)

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Interview with David Zsoldos (CEO of Papageno, President of the Hungarian Music Council)

The Classical ME conference in Timișoara concluded on November 6, where I had a conversation with Dávid Zsoldos, the versatile founder and CEO of Papageno.


Throughout your professional journey, you have gained extensive experience in various fields. Did the realms of music, media, and business influence each other in any way?


I initially pursued a career as a concert pianist, and my path seemed promising. By the age of 18, I had performed in significant solo concerts around the world, from Moscow to Los Angeles. Music was not only my passion but also the path I wanted to tread, and the world I wanted to inhabit. However, a regrettable accident forced me to realize that perhaps being a professional pianist wasn’t my destiny.


Many of my teachers tried to steer me towards an orchestral conducting career. However, something was always missing for me in this role. I couldn’t find the direct connection to music that I had felt in piano playing. Additionally, I lacked the ability to express the musical ideas ringing in my ears directly and intimately on the instrument, which unfortunately, conducting didn’t allow me to do.


If I understand correctly, this is when you turned towards the scientific approach to music. How did the idea come about?


Exactly. One of my teachers, András Batta encouraged me to explore the world of musicology, saying that I possessed good “mental faculties”. At that time, I only had a vague idea of what this field entailed, so I wasn’t fully aware of the opportunities it held. Nevertheless, my love for reading, instilled in me from childhood by my father, who was a writer, played a significant role in my decision.


Additionally, you also ventured into the business world at a young age.


Yes, that’s right. I soon received an offer to work as the CEO of a startup company – an online music news outlet, called Zenefórum (Music Forum). It was in 2000 if I can recall – it was a completely different era with the highest-speed internet being a pricey 128 kbps ADSL and browsers like Netscape Navigator and the early Internet Explorer.


Later you founded Papageno in 2012 and have been serving as its CEO since then. In your opinion, what are the major digital challenges that media outlets face today?


The path of technical and digital advancements is a crucial and intriguing one. Nowadays, mobile phones are indispensable devices that laid the foundation for the entire digital revolution. Adapting to these changes was no easy feat for anyone. With the rise of disruptive technology, our societal habits underwent fundamental transformations. Today, we handle our finances differently, chat using various platforms – we can even chat – take photos with different devices and consume music in new ways. Mobile devices have taken over a significant portion of human interactions, yet classical music, along with other performing arts, still seems to underutilize the potential these devices offer. And there’s a reason for this…


What do you mean?


Addressing a generation heavily reliant on screens and devices is nearly impossible without us using these tools and platforms ourselves. The major issue is that these aspects are somewhat incongruent with the classical music experience. When we consider the trends in social media, it’s evident that visual content is becoming increasingly dominant, and at the same time, the time users allocate to consuming each message is decreasing. A mobile device offers users a plethora of enjoyable experiences, such as funny videos and stand-up comedy, for example. In contrast, an opera broadcast will never be as enjoyable on a smartphone, and most likely not even on a single monitor.


I just want to say that it’s very challenging to select from the array of tools what is applicable for conveying the messages of classical music and opera, and what is less suitable. Naturally, we must utilize the digital tools and platforms at our disposal, but it’s essential not to forget that adapting the content solely for mobile compatibility may compromise the essence of the art form.


How would you relate your previous thoughts to what you mentioned in a 2016 interview when you advised against “leading the audience into a museum” during various opera performances? In your opinion, how can we enrich a musical performance with new individual values?


The question remains highly relevant and often comes up. Since the emergence of directorial opera, there has been an ongoing clash of two different perspectives. On one side, there are those who wish to present opera as a magnificent 19th-century picture book to the audience, while on the other side, new interpretations keep emerging. I believe that fundamentally, we must acknowledge and recognize that there is no single definitive, true interpretation of an opera in terms of direction, encompassing both the stage and the musical ideas. I think plenty of La bohèmes and Magic Flutes can coexist harmoniously. In fact, what makes the whole situation exciting and colourful is that different directors have varied visions and concepts for a particular piece. Consequently, different messages take centre stage or recede into the background with each performance. A masterpiece is precisely that because it can accommodate a multitude of interpretations.


Could you tell us about how you established connections with international partners, allowing you to be here today in Timișoara at the Classical ME conference?


I first met Ovidiu Andriș, the manager of Banatul Philharmonic and the visionary behind this event, in Timișoara. I had the pleasure of inviting him to our Bach 2 Future conference, and I am glad to see that this experience was one of the direct motivations of him starting the Classical ME conferences. 


Comparing this year’s Classical ME conference to the previous one, I felt a tighter sense of organization. Progress was evident and palpable in every aspect. I genuinely hope that this growth will continue in the future. In my opinion, following this path, the event could become one of the most significant gatherings in the region – or maybe in Europe – within a few years.


Certainly, many questions, issues, and individual solutions were discussed regarding the challenges of classical music in the digital world. In your opinion, what specific challenges does today’s classical music industry face, and what individual solutions do we have?


We previously talked about the digital revolution, which has not yet fully reached the world of classical music. Therefore, by opening new doors, exciting opportunities will arise, making the upcoming years incredibly intriguing.


One specific topic that is dear to me and was discussed at the conference is the question of classical music metadata. This might sound obscure and unfamiliar to many musicians, but fundamentally, it concerns how we can find classical music content on the internet. To illustrate this with a simple example, if you search for The Beatles’ song “Let It Be” on the most popular video-sharing platform, you’ll find exactly the music you’re looking for. You might even come across radio edits or covers, but you have the exact music itself. In contrast, if you type in “Mozart piano concerto A major” you’ll have to sift through hundreds of random performances of nine movements of three different piano concertos.


Not to mention, music is siloed in the databases of major record labels. This means that these platforms essentially compete only in the user interface. Classical music video recordings are closely tied to the institutions creating them, unlike traditional film media content. Practically speaking, institutions producing these contents worldwide simply cannot afford to showcase their works on these large platforms for pennies, or in many cases, they are not allowed to do so.


Today marks the end of the Classical ME conference. If you had to summarize your experiences, what were your expectations coming into the event, and what are you taking away from it?

I arrived at the conference with great joy because the event is very close to my heart. I have known Ovidiu Andriș for more than five years, and I highly appreciate his work for the event. This is particularly important and personal for me because I am familiar with the conceptualization and later realization of the event.


It was very exciting to learn about the introduction of new Romanian classical music festivals. We got insights into two extremely original, flawlessly executed events based on unique ideas: Musica Ricercata and the Iași festival. However, I felt a bit sad when I pondered the possibilities of similar festivals in Hungary and how they could be supported and financed. Personally, I am deeply concerned that Romania has surpassed us not only in terms of per capita GDP but also in classical music output. Looking back a few years, this was not necessarily the case.