Classical music has a metadata problem

Streaming has given a new lease of life to the recorded music industry. Well, parts of it anyway.

Take Vivendi’s poptastic Universal Music Group. Its revenues from subscriptions and streaming grew 28.1 per cent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2019, netting the Bolloré-owned business €737m, just under half of its revenues.

Yet there’s a crucial detail left out in all the talk of a streaming revival: how classical music has been left out in the cold, seemingly destined to gently recede further and further into relative irrelevancy.

A new report by Midia Research out Thursday, commissioned by IDAGIO — a classical music streaming service, no less — underlines some of the issues facing the music of Mozart and Mahler in the streaming age.

In 2018, classical music recorded revenues grew just 2.1 per cent versus 15 per cent for the wider market. Overall it accounts for just 1.5 per cent of the global streaming market.

Canvassing the report, classical music’s issues seem to stem from two, intertwined forces: format and metadata.

Let’s start with format.

Classical music listeners, perhaps to no one’s great surprise, are still of the analogue world. MIDIA found, in a survey of 8,000 listeners across 8 countries, that radio and CDs are the most popular ways to listen to the genre. Classical concerts shown on TV, those things your nan watches on a Sunday afternoon, rank fourth:

Anyone with a vague grasp on industry dynamics will spot the problem here: CDs, the most popular format, have a rapidly accelerating half-life. Between 2017 and 2018, sales of compact discs declined by 33.9 per cent in dollar value, and by 40.7 per cent in volume, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. In 2008, $11.4bn CDs were shipped; in 2018 that figure was just $1.05bn.

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However, while it is easy to paint classical music as a genre for the greying, there’s a clear reason why CDs remains the most popular format among the 8,000 listeners who MIDIA surveyed.

Take a step back and think about recorded pop music.

Pop, and by pop we mean the post-Elvis period in popular music, has several defining features. It is often grouped around one star performer, who is backed by a host of players and songwriters. The compositions themselves are also concrete: cast in recorded time at a certain tempo, with a certain arrangement, during a certain era. Sure, there are remasters, and limited editions but put on Talking Heads’ “Take Me to the River”, and you know what you’re going to get.

Classical music, on the other hand, shares none of pop music’s certainties. Despite the arrangements — most of the time — being set, the interpretation of a piece by the performers is often as crucial as the underlying music itself. As a young listener, Alphaville was aghast to notice a marked difference between the various recordings of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, depending on the piano player (Reinbert De Leeuw’s is the best, in our humble opinon). With larger orchestras, the effect can be even more pronounced.

In the streaming age, this is a disadvantage. Spotify, for instance, encourages its listeners to search music by artist, genre or song:

So when you search, let’s say, Mozart:

You’re presented with every available Mozart recording, listed by order of release, and not recording or writing:

In pop music, this is not so much a problem. The Beatles, for instance, did not write Hey Jude in 1821, with the best performance of the work coming in 1966 on a specific recording on limited release. At least, we think that’s the case.

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However, this is frequently the case with classical music. And on Spotify, at least, it is difficult to filter by different inputs such as “artist” (read: composer), performance, time of recording, location or conductor. This makes finding classical music a slog.

This is fundamentally an issue with metadata — the detailed tags attached to each track. Much has been written about the wads of unclaimed wonga owed, or paid incorrectly, to artists, because of bad song tagging. See this excellent article from The Verge, as one example. However, for classical music this is an existential problem — detailed metadata are not just a means of organising content so people are paid, but is also is crucial to help discover it. IDAGIO, unsurprisingly, is trying to address this issue.

It is no wonder then that classical music buyers still revert to compact discs — where they can guarantee to find their favourite performances, when it comes to consuming the genre. (There’s also a discussion to be had over whether “classical music” deserves to broken out into several genres/periods alongside rap, pop and rock etc, given it’s as — if not more — diverse a body of music than its “popular” rivals. But that’s for another time, and probably another website.)

The lack of available metadata on Spotify, and the other main streaming platforms, also has another detrimental effect on classical music: it becomes a genre which exists as a means, rather than an end.

Take this Guardian article from earlier this year, titled “Young people are turning to classical music to escape ‘noise of modern life'”.

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While the article speaks breathlessly of a new-found life for classical music among young listeners, the stated reason is clear. No longer is classical music a genre with competing styles and sounds — varying from some of the most abrasive music ever written to some of the sappiest — but a sonic type which acts as a countermeasure to the chaos of modernity.

And the data suggest it is indeed being used as such. While streaming of classical music was up 46 per cent year-on-year in 2018, MIDiA found that the genre “relaxing piano music” was the sixth most preferred genre of its surveyed listeners — higher than jazz or indie/ alternative.

Form — in this case playlists and algorithms — dictating music’s content is nothing new. But there’s something unsettling about a several-hundred-year-old history of art being sold as the equivalent of a sonic massage. It seems nothing is immune from the digital era any more.

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