Monthly Archives: January 2014

Classical music is not just dead. It’s undead.

Photo by Drew Triebe, http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/Bl_cvyFgfX6yhMuJw-KRRnBUtqqxPWGWFXX5fNjHwG0

Daphnis et Chloé et Brains?

Classical music, as everyone knows, is either dying or dead.  This has been the case pretty much since its inception – a point neatly illustrated by my friend and colleague Andy Doe in this New Yorker infographic yesterday – but the last fortnight has seen an alarming blur of doctors, nurses and amateur diagnosticians rushing around classical music’s still-twitching corpse trying to decide just how dead it really is.

The patient was wheeled in last week by one Mark Vanhoenacker, whose prognosis (published in Slate) was fairly definitive: ‘Classical music in America is dead‘.  Politely disagreeing was the aforementioned Andy Doe MD, who proceeded to tear Mr Vanhoenacker’s article into itty bitty shreds before dropping the mic and walking off stage.  The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette let us know that even engaging Vanhoenacker on this subject was merely stooping to his level, and that there were probably merits to both sides of the argument anyway.  Then the New Yorker stepped in to remind us that predictions of the death of classical music are as old as the genre itself.

I don’t really have anything to add to this centuries-old debate, except to offer this slightly left-field proposal.  Instead of arguing over whether classical music is dead or alive, how about we simply accept that it probably died at birth, and has since joined the ranks of the living dead?  A kind of zombie artform which shambles along unaware of anything beyond its own desire to consume our brains.

Indeed, if you think about it, classical music has much in common with your common or garden-variety zombie:

The best thing about this idea is that we already have a soundtrack for it.  Hat tip once again to the one-and-only Mr Andrew Doe, who once produced an excellent Music for the Zombie Apocalypse album.

Of course, not all of these arguments can stand up to a great deal of scrutiny.  But then again, neither can most of those made about the demise of a five-centuries-old musical tradition, and those get published all the time.  So there.

Coming soon to a classical search engine near you. . .

I thought I’d just write a quick note to tell you what we have planned for the site in the next couple of weeks.

Our development team is currently working on the latest version of our prototype website, which represents a significant upgrade to the pretty limited version of the site currently at leliomusic.com.  The new version will look superficially similar, but much has gone on under the hood.  Here’s what you can expect.

  • A significant increase in the number of recordings available.  We currently list about 150 recordings.  This will increase to around 2,000 in the next release.  This is still a very long way away from being comprehensive – and you may notice that the actual selection is a little eccentric! – but it’s a step in the right direction.  More to the point, we will be able to add more albums on a regular basis.
  • Search for a much wider range of compositions.  The current prototype only lets you search for symphonies; the new release will open searches up to all musical forms, with the exclusion of songs and opera (which have some slight technical challenges involved).
  • iTunes links: We will now feature buy links to both Amazon and iTunes!  If you use them, we will actually make a very small amount of money – imagine that!
  • Support for misspellings: At the moment, if you type Mozarf instead of Mozart, you get no results back.  In the new version, misspelled words will automatically take you to the correct page (with an option to go back to a general search results page if we got it wrong).
  • Artist imagery (we hope!): At the moment the site only features images of composers.  We are hoping to get hold of a stack of artist publicity photos to use on the site.  It won’t be entirely comprehensive, but should go some way towards making the site more visually appealing.
  • Better album titles: Currently, album titles are being pulled from Amazon’s data, leading to situations such as a listing for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Choral”.  The new site will replace these titles with automatically generated names based on the works featured and our own data.  This should be much cleaner and more accurate.  (You would not believe the amount of SQL code sitting behind this seemingly simple task, though!)
  • Lots of minor look-and-feel tweaks: Stuff you won’t even notice, but which will make the site look just a little more polished.

We’re expecting to release all of this in early February, so stay tuned for more.  And, as always, if you like what we’re doing, please share this blog on Facebook or Twitter or really any social media outlet you like.

Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)

Credit: Peter Fischli

Claudio Abbado (1933-2014) (Photo credit: Peter Fischli / IMG Artists)

Enormously sad news today: the great conductor Claudio Abbado has passed away at the age of 80.

I saw Abbado only twice.  Or perhaps I should say: I was lucky enough to see Abbado twice.  The most memorable of those occasions was when he brought his hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra to the Proms in 2007.  On the programme was Abbado’s greatest speciality, Gustav Mahler, in this case the enormous Third Symphony.  In six movements, ranging in length from three minutes to thirty and clocking in at over 100 minutes in total, it takes supreme intelligence and structural understanding to bring off this beast of a work successfully in concert.  Abbado brought it off and then some.

At the time, I wrote in The Guardian that “to call this occasion a special event would be to damn it with faint praise: it was a profound musical experience and an outstanding achievement in every respect.”  The same might have been said of so many Abbado performances, particularly in his later years.  A musician’s conductor, he frequently directed applause intended for him towards his collaborators, refusing to take to the podium and instead standing side-by-side with his players.  The result was a level of trust rarely seen between conductor and orchestra, and it paid extraordinary dividends.

Today, I’m sure you will read many much finer eulogies for this great musician than I could ever write. Instead I leave you with this, the sublimely beautiful last movement of Mahler’s Third, about which Bruno Walter said:

Words are stilled – for what language can utter heavenly love more powerfully and forcefully than music itself?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=thkkaUEYqJY

A classically trained search engine

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jazbeck/

No, Amazon, when I say “Beethoven’s 2nd” I am not looking for a kids film about a freaking St Bernard.

As most of us who have ever tried it will know, searching for classical music online is a hit-and-miss affair.  There’s a reason for this.  Most search engines decide which results are relevant to you by matching words in your search query with words that appear in a particular web page, document or record.  The more words matched within a given document, the more ‘relevant’ a search engine believes it to be and the higher up the list of search results it will go.

The problem with this type of search is that it is fundamentally ‘dumb’. The search engine has no built-in understanding of the words you use in your search query.  It doesn’t know that a “piano concerto” is a musical form, that “Mozart” is a composer, that “A major” is a key signature, and that the “A major piano concerto by Mozart” is not the same thing as “a major piano concerto by Mozart”.

This is not terribly surprising.  Most search engines have no idea who you are, or what you are going to type into them.  In the US last year, the top ten Google searches included “Boston marathon”, “government shutdown”, “VMAs”, “new pope” and “Mayweather vs Canelo”.  That’s a pretty diverse range of topics, and no search engine could be expected to have an intelligent understanding of each of them.

The problem is worsened quite substantially when numbers are introduced into a query. This is pretty much impossible to avoid with classical music, whether you’re looking for “beethoven piano concerto 5“, “schoenberg 5 pieces for orchestra” or “corelli’s 12 violin sonatas op 5“.  Because a search engine doesn’t really understand the terms you type into it, it cannot deduce from the context what sort of number you’re looking for.  Instead, it just searches for matching numbers within its database.

The result is that a search for “beethoven symphony no 5” might yield an album of (say) Beethoven‘s Symphony No. 7 coupled with the Piano Concerto No. 5.  From the search engine’s perspective, that’s not a bad match.  From yours, it could definitely be bettered.

This inability to intelligently comprehend what you are looking for is why traditional search engines don’t really work for classical.  Completely unambiguous search terms such as the following yield completely different sets of results, even on the two biggest online music retailers:

 

 

Search Results

 

Good luck guessing which of those results sets has the particular recording you’re looking for in it!

Solving this problem has been one of Lelio’s key aims over the last 18 months.  Our search engine was built with classical music in mind from the very beginning.  We were able to do this because, unlike a traditional search engine, we know what type of information our users are likely to be looking for.  It is then just a matter of programming the search engine to intelligently interpret queries about that information.

So for instance, when you type “beethoven symphony 3″ into the Lelio search box, it understands that Beethoven is a composer, a symphony is a musical form, and 3 (in this context) probably refers to a particular instance of that musical form.  If you typed in “beethoven symphony 55″, however, it knows that there is no 55th symphony and instead checks to see whether there is a matching symphony under Op. 55 – which, in this case, there is.

Key to the efficacy of this model is ensuring that every term in our database is unique.  It’s no good having different records for “Tchaikovsky”, “Tschaikowski” and “Tchaik” (as his mates call him), when they are all synonyms for the same composer.  Likewise, Lelio will accept any of the following variants of the word “symphony”:

  • symphony
  • sinfonie
  • symphonie
  • sinfonia
  • sin
  • sinf
  • sym
  • symph

As far as Lelio’s search is concerned, all of these terms mean the same thing (and in the next release, it will also recognise misspelled variants just in case you have chubby fingers like me.) This is what allows us to return such a consistent set of results.

Why is this consistency so important, you ask?  Well, remember how the other week I blogged about Lelio’s mission to revive classical music sales?  Well, it turns out that in the world of sales, positioning is everything.  Just look at this graph showing the clickthrough rate of Google’s search results:

Optify analysis of Google top 20 search results click-through rate

What this graph demonstrates is that someone is almost three times as likely to click on the first search result they get offered than on the second – and over 16 times more likely than on the tenth.  If someone wants to buy something, it pays to ensure you’ve positioned it smack in the middle of their sight line.

With Lelio, we take things one step further. If our search engine considers your search to be wholly unambiguous, we don’t even display a list of search results: we just take you straight to the item you’re looking for.  At the moment, this is limited to composers or works, but artists and recordings will be coming in the next release.  The idea is to save you valuable time which can be better spent deciding whether you want the Furtwängler recording or the Klemperer.  (Top tip: get both!)

At any rate, we think this technology works really well and removes a big degree of randomness from the process of searching for classical music.  As I said in my last post, however, we know our prototype search engine is extremely limited – but we hope you enjoy playing around with it anyway and seeing what it could be capable of in the future.  If you have any feedback, we’d love to hear it – and please do share this blog using the buttons at the top of the post if you like what we’re doing.

(Subsistence) Living Classical

Last week I talked a little bit about the sad decline in classical sales and Lelio’s mission to reinvigorate the sector by building a new model for online shopping.  In today’s post I’m going to discuss our strategy for how we’re going to do this with no money.

Lelio is a startup, which is a nice way of saying we have no customers and no revenues.  Our coding, design work, business development, marketing, data entry and so on has all had to come out of our own pockets.  Ten or so people have contributed directly to the project over the last 18 months, some of them putting in hundreds of hours of work, and all have foregone payment in lieu of a slice of the business we hope to build together.

The whole “no money” thing does have some advantages, though.  It forces a business like ours to be highly strategic – to really pick and choose which objectives are most important to our success, and try to achieve those objectives as cheaply and as efficiently as possible.

We decided early on in the Lelio project that the key to making classical music easier to buy was to make it easier to find.  So building an effective search engine had to be our first priority.

We’re so lean we could only afford one copy of this book

The question is, how do you build a search engine from scratch with no money?  For this, we defer to the wisdom of Eric Ries’s excellent and highly influential book The Lean Startup.  Ries argues that startups, rather than trying to perfect their product before launching it, should focus on building what he calls a “minimum viable product” (MVP) and aim to get that in front of customers as quickly as possible.  The rationale for this is that no entrepreneur wants to be working in secret for two years on a product and only find out at the end that nobody actually wants it.  Furthermore, no amount of beta testing or focus grouping will tell you whether or not your product is desirable better than your customers will.

So we set ourselves a very minimal goal in order to test our thesis: could we create a search engine for symphonies only?

We chose to focus on symphonies for a number of reasons:

  • According to our market research, the symphony is the most popular form amongst classical listeners;
  • There is a fairly small group of symphonies in the standard repertory;
  • And most importantly, symphonies have abstract titles such as Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, which would really test our search engine’s mettle.

So that’s why if you visit the Lelio prototype website today, you will our search engine only finds results for about 120 symphonies and a couple of dozen composers.  What it does do, though, is prove to us that our search works: if you type in “beethoven’s third symphony” or “eroica symphony” or “lvb sym 3″ or “beethoven op 55″ you will get the same set of results for Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony every time.  That’s already a pretty big improvement over what iTunes and Amazon can do.

Still, we know the site is still of pretty minimal use to customers.  Amazon and iTunes carry over a hundred thousand classical recordings, against which our selection of just under 200 seems pretty paltry.  Don’t worry, we know.  Nor do we imagine for a moment that classical customers are suddenly going to lose all interest in chamber music, piano music, instrumental music, song or opera and just stick to the symphonic repertoire from now on.

But as I say, we have to be strategic.  Our next release – which we expect in the next month or so – will substantially broaden the scope of the search engine.  We will have ten times as many recordings, and several thousand searchable works in the database – although still excluding vocal music and opera at this stage (sorry!).

Our hope is that this is enough to at least get a few people using the site.  That’s something we can build on, a minimum viable product.  Our next step is to seek an early stage investor to come on board and fund the next round of development.  With a little extra money (i.e. some) we can focus on building the next set of features, including:

  • A fully “clickable” journey through to our composers and artists (rather than requiring you to type something in the search box);
  • The ability for customers to write reviews and rate recordings;
  • The introduction of custom Collections (more on this in another post);
  • Many more searchable works, artists and composers.

We have plans beyond these features, of course, but I have to hold something back for another blog post.  But one thing you may have noticed is that not once have I mentioned how we will actually sell stuff on our sales platform.

There’s a reason for that.  The mechanics of shopping baskets, checkouts, payment gateways and delivery services are already tried and tested.  We aren’t planning to improve that technology, and investing in even a ‘me too’ is expensive and time consuming.  That’s why we currently use Amazon (and soon, iTunes) to handle the actual transactions.  We get only a very small cut of those sales, but at this stage all we are trying to prove is that people prefer shopping for classical music using a website that speaks their language.

We hope we are making progress on that front, and would welcome any feedback you have about the search as it stands.  Failing that, the best way you can help Lelio at this stage is to tell others what we’re working on!  There is a whole suite of sharing options at the top of this post, any one of which will help Lelio on its journey towards making the online world a better place for classical customers to buy music.

Solving classical music in the 21st Century

Shopping for classical music in the good old days

In my last post I discussed the disheartening decline in classical sales over the last couple of decades.  From representing 11% of the recorded music market back in 1990, classical has dropped to just 3% today.  The collapse of traditional bricks-and-mortar record shops has forced classical customers online, where we are treated very much as second-class citizens in a retail landscape thoroughly dominated by pop music.  Inadequate technology means that finding the specific album or recording we want to buy has become a hit-and-miss affair, usually involving our having to wade through countless irrelevant search results before we (maybe) find what we’re looking for.  Many of us just give up, creating a vicious cycle whereby dwindling classical sales disincentive online retailers from investing in the genre and fixing the situation.

Something desperately needs to change.  And that’s where Lelio comes in.

When we started working on Lelio back in 2012, we had a fairly straightforward aim: to make classical music as easy to buy online as it is in a shop.  That might sound simple, but there are several big challenges that we’ve needed to overcome.

To start with, it’s worth pointing out that online shopping does have some natural advantages to the traditional “walk into a shop and buy what you want” experience.  For a start, there’s no walking involved (which is a major plus in my books).  Online shops can also carry a much bigger range of stock than their offline counterparts.  That means more choice for the customer, which in theory is a very good thing.

In the world of classical, however, the sheer size of that range can be daunting.  There are over 150 commercially available recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony alone, with more being released every year.  For someone just beginning to build their classical collection, knowing where to start is tricky.  For a more experienced collector, knowing where to go to next can be just as much of a challenge.

This is where a traditional shop has the advantage: any classical section worth its salt will have a chap behind the counter who can help you find a recording to suit your needs.  Failing that, there’s always the ubiquitous (and usually thoroughly dishevelled) copy of a Penguin Guide or Gramophone Guide lying around on the counter.  Online shops might be able to offer you customer reviews and star ratings, but they are no substitute for an expert opinion.

But even if you did just want to wing it, in a traditional shop you at least have the option of browsing through all the available recordings yourself.  That’s because in an old school classical section, albums are handily organised by composer and composition, rather than sales rank or release date.  This style of organisation – an A-Z listing of composers, with each composer’s works neatly filed under Symphonies, Concertos, String Quartets, Piano Sonatas etc – works brilliantly for classical shoppers, but is entirely absent from the online shopping experience.

So, Lelio’s first challenge has been this: how do you create a structure for selling music which is appropriate to classical?  Most online retailers simply take the view that copying and pasting the dominant “songs and albums” model will be sufficient for us classical customers.  With Lelio, we’ve thrown away that model completely, and started again from scratch.

I don’t want to bore you with in-depth discussions about our database design, but suffice to say that every album on Lelio is defined in terms of which compositions it contains.  This is in fact a radical departure from an album being defined in terms of artist name and album title, which is the model used by pop music and the model into which classical music is shoehorned by every record label and online retailer out there.

Building our database using compositions as the basic building block allows us to do a lot of really neat things.  We can group all recordings of a particular composition together under a single set of results.  We can group compositions together by composer, and build categories and hierarchies for that composer (e.g. Chamber Music –> String Quartets –> Late String Quartets).  We can slice and dice our data to show you all Bruckner recordings by Daniel Barenboim, then let you pivot to see all of Barenboim’s recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas, and let you pivot again to see the Beethoven sonatas recorded by András Schiff.  We can also do some really, really neat tricks with our search engine, but I’ll discuss that in another post.

Ultimately, our hope is that by starting from the position of loving and understanding classical music, we can build something that really resonates with classical fans.  We want customers to have a nice time shopping for music, rather than pulling their hair out over the inadequacies of the technology.  By rebuilding the online shopping experience from the ground up, our hope is nothing short of revitalising the classical sector – replacing the vicious circle I mentioned earlier with a virtuous one.

All of this is a huge undertaking, though, and we can’t do it all at once.  Next week I’ll talk about our more immediate goals, why our current prototype website only has 150 recordings listed on it, and when you can expect to see the next round of developments.

In the meantime, if you liked this blog, you’ll be doing us a big favour by sharing it on Facebook or Twitter!

Lelio: The Prehistory

Somewhere in this primordial soup you can hear Lelio being born

It’s been a little while since I’ve updated this blog, for which I must apologise.  Keeping a blog is a little like keeping a pot plant: without regular attention and nourishment, it will wither and die.  I was never much good at keeping pot plants, and I fear that as far as the Lelio blog is concerned, the brown leaves have long started outnumbering the green ones.

But it’s a new year, which means that it’s as good a time as any to turn over a new leaf (if you’ll forgive me overextending the plant analogy).  I’m going to be updating this blog much more regularly from now on, so watch this space.  I’m also going to be moving away from general ruminations on the world of classical music – there are plenty of other talented bloggers covering those subjects as it is – and talk to you instead more about what Lelio is all about, what we’re working on, and why we’re doing what we’re doing.

I’m going to start with that last point, which entails a short, slightly depressing history lesson.  Sorry.  There will be gleaming futuristic awesomeness in the next post, possible featuring hovercars and world peace.  Promise.  In the meantime. . .

The Problem with Classical Music (Abridged Version)

Back in the early 1990s classical music was a pretty big deal. Globally, one dollar in every ten spent on recorded music was spent on classical.  This was partly fuelled by the introduction of the compact disc in the mid-80s, a format which represented a significant improvement over the cassette tapes of the preceding generation, and whose introduction precipitated a spate of re-buying amongst audiophile collectors.  Classical fans led the charge in this department, and small wonder: the CD had been developed with classical interests firmly in mind, to the extent that the actual physical dimensions of the new format had been defined as ‘just big enough to fit a complete recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a single disc’.

By the turn of the century however there was a new game in town, and it was called the MP3.  Far easier to buy and much more portable than CDs, the MP3 – along with its less famous but more widespread cousin the AAC – promised to change the record industry forever.  Apple released its iPod in 2001, and in just under a decade transformed from a slightly unloved technology company into the world’s single largest music retailer – all because it was first to ride the new wave of downloadable music.

What a pity, then, that downloads represented such a backwards step for classical fans.  Highly compressed audio was never going to unseat CD in the sound quality stakes, and the portability benefits downloads offered was only of limited interest to the three-quarters of us who still do most of our listening at home.  The only possible advantage a download could offer over a CD was the convenience with which it could be bought: online, from the comfort of one’s own home.

But even the convenience of buying music online had been compromised when it came to classical.  Just finding classical music was – and continues to be – a huge pain in the proverbial.

Type in the name of a Beatles album, and iTunes or Amazon will be able to point you to it, take your money and deliver your music to you before you can say “it’s not actually called The White Album officially you know”.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for a specific recording of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, you and the retailer first need to agree on the correct spelling of Tchaikovsky (Tchaikovsky? Tschaikowsky? Tchaïkovski?), whether you wanted the “Symphony 6” or the apparently unrelated “Pathetique Symphony“, whether you meant the “VPO” or the “Wiener Philharmoniker “, and finally sort out who this Rafael Kubelik fellow is anyway.  It’s a mess of shoddy data, inadequate search tools, and an apathetic attitude by retailers that reflects the decreasing importance of classical buyers.

Shopping for classical music online has become a confusing and frustrating experience, and without any pressing need to upgrade our CD collections, it has become less and less worth our while to get out our credit cards.  The result?  Classical has dropped from 11% of worldwide music sales to just 3%.

Worse, this decline has become self-perpetuating:

Classical cycle

 

The only way to halt the decline of classical music is by breaking this vicious cycle.  And that’s where Lelio comes in.  My collaborators and I have invested over 18 months of our lives into this so-called ‘dying genre’ because we believe that there remains a strong, committed audience for classical music out there.  We want to make shopping online as enjoyable and engaging an experience as nosing around in the classical section of your local record shop used to be.  Ultimately, we want people to buy more classical music.  And we want to do that because we want to see classical resurge and grow strong once again.

In the next post I’m going to talk a bit more about how we’re actually hoping to achieve all this – and how you can help.  In the meantime, I wish you all a very happy New Year and promise – cross my heart and hope to die – not to let this blog shrivel up again.