Why did Apple just buy a classical music streaming service?

Unless you’re a classical music boffin you’ve probably never heard of Amsterdam-based Primephonic – a classical music start-up which launched in 2018.

It enabled users access to hi-res classical downloads in a variety of formats and had a large classical catalogue available for streaming.

It also had one of the best classical metadata search functions around and Apple just bought it.

“Together, we’re bringing great new classical features to Apple Music, and in the near future, we’ll deliver a dedicated classical experience that will truly be the best in the world,” said Oliver Schusser, Apple’s vice president of Apple Music and Beats in a press release marking the acquisition.

That’s good news because the user experience for classical fans on Apple Music and Spotify – although it has improved over the last few years – is frustrating. 

Sure, ninety percent of the time the classical recording you want is there but actually finding it requires patience.

If, for example, you want a symphony by Brahms or Tchaikovsky by a certain conductor – or Beethoven’s string quartet 127 by the Alban Berg Quartet – your search will likely take four or five inputs before you hit on the recording you want.

For example there’s around forty possible spellings of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and many classical albums are in German or Italian, not always easy for an English speaking classical fan to navigate.

The problem is that classical, and to some extent jazz, doesn’t easily fit into the artist/song/album paradigm that powers the major streaming services search engines.

It works great for country, pop, hip hop and rock but when you have music that’s been recorded in countless versions – conductors, for example, have often recorded the same symphony with different orchestras multiple times in their career – things get complicated.

Getting that right was integral to Primephonic when it launched. 

It not only hand-coded its metadata (many of its employees were classical musicians themselves) it also compensated artists based on time streamed, not songs played – a key difference as most classical pieces are 20 or more minutes long.

But it was that metadata accuracy that really set Primephonic apart.

A spokesperson told Stereophile when Primephonic launched that – “Labels do a fantastic job at representing classical metadata, but the services don’t pass it along or display it accurately. While they are locked into artists, we conduct our searches differently. Our classical database, which we think of as the classical musical bible of information and metadata for the industry, is solely based on works as well as composers. Imagine a human body. The composers and all the works they have ever written in their lifetimes are the spinal cord. When you search Tchaikovsky Piano Concertos, you’ll find all the recordings.”

Extra detail

Once you’ve found the recording, the next question is how much information you can see: Primephonic, like Idagio and Qobuz made pdfs of liner notes available for users. This is key in classical as physical releases often have essay-like liner notes on the composer, conductor, the work’s history as well as orchestra and recording information.

Primephonic was also ahead of its time in providing curated playlists around themes, country or instrument. It had a violin playlist created by Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, and an oboe playlist by German oboist Albrecht Mayer.

Its most recent innovation – introduced in February – was an in-app listening guide. 

If you were listening to say an album of Bach Cello Suites (I recommend 2018’s Six Evolutions by Yo-Yo Ma) panels would pop up highlighting interesting things about the passage being played – the history of the cello Ma plays perhaps or if you were streaming a Schumann symphony – did Brahms really steal Robert Schumann’s wife while Schumann was in a mental hospital? 

That extra experiential detail and meta-data advantage was clearly something Apple was attracted to and aims to repackage.

It promises that users will get the best features of Primephonic, including better browsing, search capabilities by composer and repertoire, detailed displays of classical music metadata, as well as “new features and benefits” in a “dedicated classical music app” using Primephonic’s user interface.

The launch date looks like it’ll be early in 2022.

Classical Apple

The acquisition makes perfect sense for Apple coming just a few months after it introduced hi res and spatial audio on Apple Music. 

Spatial – which presents an immersive, surround sound experience – is naturally suited to classical and the high res capability is a must-have for many classical music listeners who had over the last few years migrated to platforms like Qobuz, Tidal, Idagio and Primephonic.

Apple also saw the growing popularity of the genre throughout the pandemic and the fact that there’s a huge number of classical listeners who haven’t yet switched to streaming. 

In 2020 streaming accounted for just a quarter of classical consumption, lagging far behind the rest of the market where the figure is closer to 68%. 

Apple Music clearly wants to be the preferred platform those classically inclined users shift to in the coming years.

While the stereotype persists that classical appeals to an older demographic, a study last year by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, streaming service Deezer, and the British Phonographic Industry found that of those streaming classical music in the last year, 34 percent were 18 to 25 years old. 

Over lockdown in the UK classical streams by listeners under 35 rose by 17 percent – many of them turning to classical playlists like Spotify’s Calming Classical – which has over a 250 000 followers – in a time fraught with anxiety.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the announcement is that Apple will spin off classical into its own app. 

Whether this will be free for Apple Music subscribers or will incur an additional cost hasn’t been made clear – but it’s an exciting move; I know I’d welcome a stand-alone jazz or hip hop app – where you could go when you wanted to dig in deeper in the genre especially if they were curated in some way by experts in the field and had added features like detailed track info and liner notes. It would make the digital experience more like crate digging in the jazz section of your local record store.

According to Primephonic around 40 percent of Primephonic users were also subscribers to Apple Music or Spotify so there’s clearly a crossover market.

Federico Viticci, editor of www.macstories.net believes the acquisition could also see Apple combining podcasts and music in a new way, a feature that separated Primephonic from other classical streaming services.

“Primephonic combine music and podcast interviews in the same service,” he said in a recent podcast – “so for example you may find a story about a conductor and that page contains both the curator’s picks for that conductor as well as a Primephonic interview with that conductor, so you can listen to the interview and then… to the music. I think it’s fascinating.

“Imagine on streaming services if you could have that kind of feature where you land on the page of the latest album by The 1975 and right there you get this article and bio and interview – an all-in-one package…”

With the big players of the streaming world now set – it’s either Amazon, Apple Music or Spotify – attention is being paid to the niche markets; in that context Apple’s sudden embrace of classical is a very shrewd one.

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