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.
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