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!

5 thoughts on “Solving classical music in the 21st Century

  1. Svend

    Even a universally agreed standard format for listing works and their movements would be a huge step forward for most online classical stores. Don’t suppose you could inspire the iTunes of the world into not listing something like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in 7 different ways….

    1. Tristan Jakob-Hoff Post author

      You’re absolutely right: the lack of an agreed standard is a big part of the problem. iTunes has a style guide for classical music, but they are reliant on the record labels to apply it correctly. The result? There are over 100 variant spellings of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony in the iTunes database! As we have found while building the Lelio database, there is very rarely a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to label these things, so the best we can hope for is a bit of consistency. But unlike other online retailers we are at least taking the task on ourselves rather than relying on our partners to do the work.

  2. Emily DeVoto

    Amen. Will follow your work closely as we have much the same concern; at Classical Ear our approach is to guide people through the repertoire in a performance-driven manner. Subscribing to your posts…

  3. Andrew Rose

    An interesting idea but you really need to get this right from the beginning, and I fear even now your database may be riddled with hard-to-find errors. A search route for {Beethoven > Orchestral > Symphonies > Symphony No. 6 > Artist Filter: Rattle > remove Beethoven} should reveal all the Simon Rattle CDs in the database, in addition to the Beethoven 6th already found. Instead I was shown a single CD with the header “Beethoven: Symphonies 1 & 3 Choral”.

    A second straight search for “Beethoven Rattle” brought up 3 CDs, but again, removing Beethoven brought me back to Beethoven’s mythical 3rd Choral Symphony.

    The concept is good, but the devil will be in the detail. Last year we updated our Pristine Classical website, which involved manually transferring all the data into a new system. The people who did this for us knew plenty about computers, the Internet, databases, building websites and so on, but just about nothing about classical music, so despite the careful specifications and testing, we’re still picking out errors and omissions from the site, though I don’t think we’ve a howler along the lines of Beethoven’s 3rd Choral Symphony.

    You’re going to live or die by the accuracy of your database and your search results – it’s your USP. I’m a little surprised that you’re letting this out as a beta test of the site when clearly this is still some way off functioning correctly and already contains significant errors. If this is the position with just 150 CDs in the database, how likely is it to be reliable with 15,000, or 150,000?

    Two further, linked questions: is this site simply going to send traffic to Amazon UK (I’m in France, most of our online customers are in the US) or will you be fulfilling orders yourselves? Are you expecting an international clientele or are you aiming purely for the UK?

  4. Tristan Jakob-Hoff Post author

    Hi Andrew, and thanks for the feedback!

    The error you noticed with regards to Beethoven Symphonies 1 & 3 “Choral” comes from Amazon, whose ‘album name’ data we are currently pulling in for expediency. It does rather prove how awful the metadata that’s out there at the moment is! Our next release will have album titles replaced with our own data, which will never contain anything that egregious.

    Releasing the site in a very much unfinished form is all part of the Lean Startup process described in Tuesday’s post: – for us, it’s about getting the product in front of people as soon as possible, gauging their feedback, then fixing it according to need. We’re running a very low budget operation here (some of us *ahem* have been working without a salary for two years now) so perfection is still a long way off. But we hope people will follow our journey with interest and enthusiasm.

    We are aiming at the UK in our first phase, but we will hope to add other territories (including France) by the end of the year. Our database is multilingual by design, and adding links to local retailers – e.g. Fnac – isn’t a huge amount of work – but we are very constrained in terms of our capacity at the moment, so progress may be slower than would be ideal!

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