By Mihir Swarup Sharma / Bloomberg Reviews
The small but diverse group of classical music lovers are in mourning after the death of one of the pillars of their community.
Primephonic, a Dutch-American app that broadcast a large catalog of classical music, died last month after being acquired by Apple Inc, which aims to integrate the service into Apple Music. But why would the world’s largest company be interested in a closed start-up with a relatively small user base, a few dozen employees, and no surprising technological innovations to brag about?
The answer: Primephonic understood the future. Apple has realized that streaming services will succeed or fail depending on whether they master the four things that the small business, along with its classical music peers like Idagio, have figured out: metadata, discovery, curation, and the quality. This would also be true for video streaming, not just music. With the takeover, Apple hopes to absorb Primephonic’s DNA.
Right now, Apple Music, like most music streaming services, is ridiculously bad at providing metadata beyond the most basic track information. Software developer and songwriter Gene de Lisa regularly tweets howlers like Apple Music listing the composer of the Pathetic Sonata as “unknown” (poor Beethoven).
Without the right metadata, the user interface crashes; you don’t know which movement plays which symphony. The search also crumbles: without metadata for conductor, orchestra, composer, or movement, you can’t find the recording you want. Worse yet, effective recommendations and the discovery of music become virtually impossible.
This is not just a problem for classical music, it is important for anything more complex than the latest Top 40 single. In India, where we listen to film music in Hindi, you may remember -being a song based on its singers, songwriter, lyricist, what movie it was from, what year it came out or even which actors synced the song into the movie.
Classic rock is the same: when a Beatles track appears, you need to know immediately whether it’s the stereo or mono mix, the original single or the album version, the alternate take of the Anthology from 1995 or the remaster from 2000.
Look for a rhythm and blues debut number and you might just get a bad “re-recording” made in the 1980s, when the original band was out of luck. For anyone with more than an occasional interest in music, streaming without the proper metadata is a disaster.
Primephonic, because it worked on getting metadata correct – and searchable – also learned more quickly about its users. Especially compared to, say, Tidal, who knows I spent two years listening to the Vienna Philharmonic, but still recommends hip-hop or [grudgingly] a playlist of original movie soundtracks.
Knowing your user is important. We don’t always open a streaming service knowing already what we want to hear or watch; the discovery process is half the fun. Primephonic didn’t just get the right algorithmic recommendations, it had real experts curating playlists – famous violinists choosing their favorite violin-focused recordings, for example.
When you listen to an album you discovered on Primephonic or Idagio, you can read the CD cover notes – and even, through Primephonic’s “maestro” service, get real-time notes on what to listen to in orchestration. In the world of video, Criterion Channel regularly invites great filmmakers to choose and present their favorite films.
Then there is the sound quality. Tidal – and its French competitor Qobuz – market themselves as offering high-resolution “better than CDs” tracks. Primephonic did the same without much fuss and at a fraction of the cost. Apple recently announced “lossless” streaming, and Spotify AB promised high fidelity music months ago.
However, high-resolution tracks aren’t much of a priority for Apple compared to the much weirder world of “space audio”. Apple has worked hard to install Dolby Atmos on hardware like Airpods, for example.
Scientists disagree on whether high-resolution streaming makes a noticeable difference to the human ear.
However, it’s hard to find a classical music fan who thinks it doesn’t, and it is the high-end and niche classical music buyers who are setting new standards in music reproduction.
RCA Victor’s orchestral Living Stereo recordings began to bring stereo into the mainstream in the 1950s. Pop was slow to catch up: The Rolling Stones still recorded mostly mono until the album Beggar’s Banquet in 1968. CDs were designed for classical music – Sony Corp and Royal Philips NC agreed that they should have 74, not 60, of a few minutes so that they could accommodate the full length of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Maybe Apple is scared that integrating streaming music with audio hardware is a mess of conflicting protocols. The implementation of Airplay’s main competitor, Google Cast Audio, is also very buggy. Speaker companies like Sonos Inc exist to overcome these contradictions and investors are already rewarding them: Sonos stock has jumped nearly 170% in the past year.
Classical music is demanding on both reproduction and research.
However, that’s why classical music fans are the ones you should be looking for if you want to imagine the future, like Apple just did. Streaming, both audio and video, is going to come down to competition on metadata, quality and discovery, not on catalog scope or cost.
Mihir Swarup Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and responsible for its Economy and Growth program.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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