Why online music stores are failing classical

All the way back in October 2007, I penned a little rant for The Guardian entitled iTunes is clueless when it comes to classical music.  I was fairly new to the world of digital music in those days, but even then it was clear that online music stores weren’t really working for classical music.  My particular gripe in that instance was that there was no way for me to download an individual work – in this case Vivaldi’s Gloria, consisting of a dozen movements – without shelling out for the whole album.

It was a small issue, but it illustrated an important underlying problem: classical music was a poor fit for the ‘songs’ and ‘albums’ model being used by online music retailers.

Given five years is the equivalent of about three millennia in the technology world, you would expect things to have moved on since I wrote that piece.  And indeed they have.  iTunes now acknowledges the concept of multi-part compositions, offering them as complete works you can buy as discrete bundles.  They’ve addressed a number of other complaints from classical fans, too, such as improving sound quality.

But there is still a long way to go.

For a start, searching for classical compositions is still a hit-and-miss affair at best.  A few months ago, I tested both iTunes and Amazon to see how they handled a variety of search terms one might use to find recordings of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony.  Just look at the huge variance in the number of results:

Search Results

Every one of those search terms unambiguously points to a single piece of music – and yet the two biggest online record shops will give you a wildly varying set of results depending on the exact set of words you choose.

It would be very easy to blame the retailers themselves for this.  But the problem is more pervasive then that, and in fact affects even the big specialist classical record labels.  The problem is metadata.

Metadata, for the uninitiated, is data that describes other data.  In this case, it’s the text that describe what you’re listening to.  For most pop records, this is pretty straightforward stuff: Artist and Song Title are usually sufficient to find pretty much anything in the popular music back catalogue.

But who is the Artist on a piano concerto?  Or an opera?  Is it the composer?  The soloist?  The singers?  The conductor?  I’ll bet everyone reading this has had the experience of finding the Artist field taken up exclusively with the name of the composer, and thus having absolutely no idea who the actual performers are.  Matters are made worse by the fact that many classical performances are a collaboration between several artists: ‘Herbert von Karajan & the Berliner Philharmoniker’ is not in fact the name of a 60s garage band, but rather two separate entities unhelpfully crammed into a single metadata field.

Worse yet is the problem of Track Name.  This is particularly problematic because most classical compositions don’t even have proper names.  Generally, we know them just by a set of parameters.  Going back to the example of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, for instance, you could describe it like this:

  • Musical Form: Symphony
  • Musical Form Instance: No. 3
  • Key Signature: E-flat major
  • Catalogue Number: Op. 55
  • Nickname: “Eroica”

You can pretty much assemble those parameters any which way you like to describe the piece in question.  And indeed that’s just what record companies do, squeezing all that data down into a single field called ‘Track Name’.  Because nobody condenses their data in exactly the same way, this leads to enormous inconsistency between record labels, which in turn leads to inconsistent search results.

Of course, it’s hardly surprising record labels and online retailers haven’t felt inclined to build a completely new metadata standard for classics.  Classical music accounts for just over 3% of total record sales worldwide.  It’s simply not worth the investment.

This is where Lelio is different.  We’ve built an entirely new standard for classical music, and paired it with a brand new type of search engine that ‘gets’ how classics work.  Our aim is simple: we want to make classical music easier to find, easier to buy, easier to compare and easier to enjoy.

I’ll be blogging in more detail about how we’ve gone about addressing the problems described above, as well as how Lelio plans to thwart a number of other bugbears that have plagued classical fans since the dawn of the digital revolution.

In the meantime, let us know what you think.  Do you share these frustrations?  Do you think things have got better over the years?  Or worse?  How would you rate the online experience versus the good old bricks-and-mortars approach?  Is there anything you prefer about it?  Or do you long for the days where a record meant something made of vinyl that you could hold in your hand, rather than just another entry in a database?

One thought on “Why online music stores are failing classical

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