“Classical Music Is the Collateral Damage of the Streaming Revolution”. One App Is Trying to Fix That

·7 min read
Photo credit: Esquire
Photo credit: Esquire

From Esquire

Primephonic is a musical streaming app that aims to do for classical music what Spotify does for pop, only better. Co-founded three years ago by Thomas Steffens, a passionate classical music fan, board member of the Dutch Arts Council and former head of operations at a large management consultant firm, the subscription-based model enables you to search through classical music by period, style, genre or musician, allowing you to find recordings with an ease not prioritised elsewhere. The service now has in excess of three and a half million tracks from 170,000 artists across 230,000 albums and 2,400 albums. There is the option to listen to everything in high-resolution audio, something Steffens says makes a difference even without audiophile-level equipment – a smart speaker like Sonos will suffice.

Borne out of the realisation that classical music was in danger of being left behind by the streaming revolution, both in terms of accessibility and audio quality, Steffens and his curatorial team of musicologists have quietly built the largest classical database in the world.

The demand is there. Primephonic’s own research says that while 60 per cent of pop music fans describe music as an ‘important part’ of their lives, that figure is 85 per cent for classical music fans. In other words, if you love classical music, you really love it.

Now there’s a streaming platform that treats it accordingly. Here Steffens explains what it’s all about.

What gave you the idea for Primephonic?

I’m a classical music fan myself and I love Spotify and Apple Music for hip-hop, jazz rock, country and blues – it works for all those. Streaming is a superior way to listen to music for all those genres, not for classical. So it was that question of why does it work so great for pop and hip-hop and why does it work so poorly for classical? I knew many classical music fans who were frustrated by this. And the second thing was concern – concern that we knew that the world was moving towards what I call “a streaming only world” – a world without CD stores, a world with less and less radio channels, people without CD players in their homes anymore. We realised that if classical music is so poorly presented and if we do not solve the streaming problem it will become irrelevant for future generations. It’s not a problem that it will die tomorrow but it will gradually lose relevance.

Photo credit: Primephonic
Photo credit: Primephonic

How is classical music ill-served by other streaming sites?

There are four reasons. First is search, it’s all to do with the metadata – it’s a majorly complex thing to find classical music compared to any other music genre. It’s very tough to find on Spotify and Apple Music a recording you are looking for. I’ll give you an example. If you go to any of the big steaming services and you type in ‘Mozart 5’ it will show you all the albums containing ‘Mozart’ and ‘5’, which is hundreds. People can’t find what they’re looking for. In our service if you type in ‘Mozart 5’ into Primephonic it asks you if you mean Piano Concerto 5, String Quartet 5 or Symphony 5. Second, there is a recommendation problem because the way streaming services work is they have a recommendation algorithm that is popularity based. So: what’s trending now. But I don’t want to get stuff that’s trending now, I want to get to know something I have never heard about before – like a special recording.

The way the algorithm works is excellent for pop music and very poor for classical. Then the third thing is audio quality – most people feel that that for rock music MP3 is good enough. Most classical music fans feel that for the delicacy of classical music genre MP3s aren’t good enough. Think about the soprano reaching for the high notes, or where there are multilayers of instruments playing at the same time – these get lost in the compression of the MP3s. And then the fourth element is artist pay outs. Spotify and Apple Music pay out on how often a price of music has been played. I would say that’s a fair mechanism for pop music because typically all pop songs are around three minutes. But a classical music work can be 20 or 30 minutes, but they get treated the same as a pop song – so if you listen to one hour of pop music you get 20 pay outs. But with classical music if you listen to an hour of music you get two or three pay outs. So classical music artists get severely underpaid.

Primephonic pays not on how often you’ve been streamed but how long you’ve been streamed. So those are the four elements: search, recommendations, audio quality and artist pay out and I think they all have the same common denominator – Apple Music and Spotify aren’t bad companies. But they’re designed for pop music and they use a one-platform-fits-all-genres approach because otherwise they would have major technical complexity problems. Which is why we have developed a platform that has a much better search for classical music and a has much more relevant recommendations, higher quality and fairer pay outs.

What was the hardest part of setting up Primephonic from scratch?

The most difficult thing was tracking all the metadata allowing for the search recommendations. We have a team of young musicologists who have been working full-time for two years to make a database of all classic music works ever composed and to also make a database of all classic music recordings, and to match those two. That’s a tremendous task, a combination of smart algorithms and lots of actual work – and we believe we have catalogued 99 percent of all classical music. We have by far the largest classical music catalogue in the world.

Photo credit: Primephonic
Photo credit: Primephonic

What percentage of classical music is on Spotify?

No one knows, because you can’t find it. It’s probably on there but you won’t be able to find where. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you want to listen to a very famous work, Mozart 21st piano concerto. You will find it. But you will realise at some point that you are listening to the 2nd movement. A classical music piece typically has several movements. And for Spotify, everything is a track. So they will just give you the 2nd movement because it is the most popular one, without giving you the full work. Also, Spotify always assumes that one track has one artist. But listen to Mozart’s 5th piano concerto performed by Lang Lang together with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Who’s the artist? Is Simon Rattle the artist? Is Lang Lang the artist? Is the LSO the artist? Or is Mozart the artist? That kind of complexity Spotify is not designed for because nobody cares. But in classical music people do care!

So broadly speaking, you’re in favour of streaming?

I want to emphasis that streaming is good – the music industry was in decline for 10 sequential years so the steaming revolution has improved things. Except for classical, which is what I’m trying to fix. Classical music is the collateral damage of the streaming revolution.

You were in management consultancy before. Was setting Primephonic up a risk?

Of course! You can imagine that my financial compensation was higher in my former job. But the point is I love classical music so much that I really feel that this problem had to be solved. And I must say I enjoy it a lot because we have 30 people from 22 countries [working for us] that all love classical music. So it has allowed me to meet amazing people from all over.


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