[ENG.] Towards a maturity of the classical music streaming offer?
Apple has announced the arrival of its "Apple Music Classical" application on 28 March, presenting this new offer as a "game changer". Let's see.
This is a translation from French. Thank you for your indulgence. Any comments or corrections are gratefully received!
[ Ceci est une traduction du français. Merci pour votre indulgence. Toute remarque ou correction sera bienvenue, avec reconnaissance ! ]
This article will be followed by a second one in a few days, which will propose a survey of the quality criteria on which one could judge the value of an online music service in the field of classical music and more generally of any specialized repertoire.
Apple has announced the arrival of its "Apple Music Classical" application on 28 March. On this occasion, I try to lift the veil on some factual elements of the online music business in the field of classical, specialized and heritage repertoires; and on what I had to know and learn about it between 2003 and 2015, not only during the initial period when I worked on the digitisation of a vast catalog of classical music, but also as the creator of the Qobuz platform when we worked with all the suppliers. Since 2015, and for my different activities, I have followed this issue closely and analyzed the situation for my clients from different angles; but also out of personal interest, I have always investigated to reinforce my knowledge of the state of the art.
Apple once created its iTunes download shop in a context where personal music players were everywhere, and equipped with music programmes, but where there was virtually no online shop to buy music. This meant that the files stored on the devices purchased were, at best, private copies but more often than not, pirated files.
At the time, the launch of iTunes opened up a download market that did not have time to develop properly due, on the one hand, to the arrival of a streaming model which, by taking on all genres in an undifferentiated way, destroyed the value of specialised repertoires; on the other hand, to the timidity of record companies and their fear of losing their cherished physical sales without preparing their digital future in any way other than by following. The scissors effect between physical and digital has been excessively long and has caused a lot of damage.
Apple has not always succeeded in its launches, far from it, and there is no guarantee at this stage that the current promotion of Apple Music Classical, based on promises and still images, will in fact result in a really interesting service for classical music lovers.
As the launch is scheduled for March 28, I will be doing a first test and benchmark (sorry, Canadian friends, I meant to say: a comparative study) which I will publish a few days later. At this stage, it seems that Apple Classical is a "small bath" application within the "big bath" Apple Music, whose services will be accessible by subscription to the standard subscription but offering features more adapted to the classic than the "big bath" version. In other words, as far as the upstream business model is concerned, Apple is proposing a machine to sell more classical music in streaming, which could increase the market share of classical music in the revenue generated, but without affecting the revenue base, where classical music will always be the ultra-minority in the consumption of Apple Music subscribers.
An online music service such as Primephonic, which was acquired by Apple and became the basis for the creation of Apple Music Classical, was dedicated solely to classical music: 100% of its revenue was classical, so the classical revenue base collected (known as ARPU) was of course much higher, per customer.
Promotional screenshot for Apple Music Classical
From the point of view of spirit, I think Apple Music was right to choose this model and not to create a classical ghetto: it is more hopeful for the future. But there is no answer to the question of revenue. It should be noted that the Big Boss of Universal Music intends his company to change the distribution model in place. As far as I'm concerned, I don't see enough change: it will probably be a combination of user-centric reporting, plus a few gadgets. Universal making the law, we should, as for the pension reform, see independent labels demonstrating in the streets; but it will not happen: as usual, follow the lead. As for me, I have always thought that the features useful to classical music were also useful to all other genres: to jazz, obviously, to so-called "traditional" world music, but also, why not, to variety.
Classical music is the most complex genre to deal with in online music: it should therefore be the standard, the model from which all other genres could benefit.
Apple's choice to create a classical application as a "little bath" in the big bath of its general service will provide an improved experience but it reflects a traditional, conventional, outdated vision, that of a classics lover's club. The same features could have been made available for all music genres and in the main application.
I have strong views on the need to promote classical music, otherwise its dissemination will be permanently compromised for the next generation. That is why I have often written here that its disappearance from general public service radio or television channels is worse than a mistake: it is a real mistake. For the same reason, I prefer a generalist streaming service where classical music is well treated, not disguised, to a generalist service that only speaks to the initiated. Especially as the boundaries of classical music are often blurred and many repertoires of lighter or lighter music, to use a retro term, are borderline. Apple Classical, which should have been released a year ago, is built, as mentioned above, on the ashes of Primephonic, a Dutch streaming service bought by Apple, which was at the time the sister company of the Pentatone label, which itself was sold to the... San Francisco Conservatory. Primephonic was, sorry to be unpleasant for our Dutch friends, very Dutch in spirit: very Anglo-Saxon, clean and modern, also very follower-like, soulless, not great from the point of view of metadata and very conformist in its ultimately very institutional and pro-Majors recommendations. The playlists and the animation seemed to me to speak to a classic discophile who was hip but very imaginary. In a business that spills 200 to 400 albums referenced as classics onto streaming services every week, with so little work on scheduling and highlighting new releases to help the platform teams, with the annihilation of free competition and the financial capacity of these companies to invest profitably in product-quality to date, it should come as no surprise that the suppliers with the most resources, or the most insistence, are at the top of the highlights and playlists.
That's why every year thousands of new releases slip through the net, at least interesting and original, sometimes superb, that only a Benedictine's work allows to discover. When we used to buy our records in record shops, we spent a pleasant moment exploring the new releases section, with the freedom to neglect the products that were too well displayed in stacks and in "facing" as we used to say, in favour of our curiosity or our interests. Such an approach has become difficult, despite the new means and sources of information offered by the Internet. Not to brag, but even as a professional observer of new releases and digital reissues from classic labels, I often miss important or noteworthy things as I explore several online music services each week, not to mention my other sources of information. Just yesterday, I discovered, almost a month late, a new record by pianist Ismael Margain on Naïve, an honourable label, and only thanks to a Facebook post! And once again, I think that my classical "speciality" is not a particular point of view: other musical genres suffer from the same opacity, the same narrow concentration of recommendation, and therefore the same defects.
In France at least the classical music press has become very weak by not renewing itself and not examining and reporting in a journalistic way on the industrial environment from which it draws its resources ; the general press, for its part, has lost all seniority in its judgement and knowledge of specialised repertoires by dint of redundancy plans and severance clauses when the papers were sold and resold. They are ready to sell their soul for a few more clicks.
At this point, and since a big player like Apple is entering the classical streaming landscape, which is neither useless nor trivial, it is worth asking what qualities one would expect from a good online music service aimed at non-mainstream repertoires? These qualities will be the ones I will examine when I have the Apple Music Classical application in my hands. At this stage, nice statements and two promotional screenshots are only promises, even if they are slavishly repeated everywhere.
But let's not fool ourselves, nor delude ourselves, nor accuse any platform of the shortcomings and failings of its suppliers.
It is true that Apple Music has infinitely more resources than most of its competitors to satisfy its customers, and that the members of the fine Primephonic team who have been retained have had a year and a half to prepare the release of Apple Music, without having to manage a service on a daily basis: this is a lot and one has the right to expect it in proportion to the time granted.
The quality that music lovers expect from their favourite platform cannot happen without the suppliers (labels with or without their own digital supply chain, digital distributors, majors or independents) making a major effort and, at a time when their accounts are recovering for the biggest ones, investing in quality, in reasonably senior and competent human resources, and in the establishment of a real strategy on the classical genre.
None of this has happened at this stage.
For 15 years the labels' real production capacity, i.e. their financial capacity to produce on their own, has been allowed to deteriorate at the expense of non-professional third-party funders or, by demagogy, the artists themselves.
For the past 15 years, progress in the supply chain that leads to the appearance of products on platforms has also been frighteningly slow, because the issues of specialised music, instead of being set aside and considered specifically, have been subsumed into the mainstream.
By supply chain I mean not only the technical chain (encoding, documentation, metadata, delivery) but also the commercial relationships with the platforms, their information, which leads to the situation described above: some albums pushed for commercial reasons, and the others condemned to invisibility often even by their sellers, obsessed with a place on a playlist or a visual on HomePage. I used to hang out with a lot of idiot record shop managers. I fear that specialist music is at this stage in the hands of some of the same and their successors.
No online music service, even the richest, can compensate for poor quality deliveries. I know labels that have been told for 15 years that they must always deliver the PDF of the booklet and they still forget, damn it! And that's without mentioning the chopped-up or false metadata, the fanciful copyright dates, the label names that keep changing, the original albums reissued digitally in their original design but to which the back cover of the LP is not attached, and which are therefore indecipherable to fans under 90 years old, provided, of course, that the latter have not lost their discophile memory along the way.
As I write this, I realise how much I, and others, have been harping on the need for quality in digital distribution for so long, with such a dismal result today.
In future articles of COUACS, I will have fun showing examples of this nonsense and these incessant failures of record companies or digital distributors, by naming names (if I speak of "name and shame" I will be shouted at by my Quebec readers!), by giving names and precise examples.
This work should have been done a long time ago by the classical music press, which should have engaged its critics to work from digital services, in order to act concretely on the trade, instead of commenting still today on plastic boxes, neglecting that a majority of readers, having switched to digital, do not have access to the information of plastic boxes and their booklets.
Platforms alone cannot do what their suppliers do not: they have neither the time nor the means. It is not their job. They don't have access to the information in the archive. Nor do they have access to the documentation, archives and metadata. And it doesn't look like Roon or Audirvana-type overdubs are satisfactory.
An online music platform at this stage is like a good cook who would have to exercise his talent with mediocre and often mismatched products, all bought at the same branch of the Metro shop where all his competitors necessarily also help themselves!
This is why the new proposals that will be made by online music platforms - beyond their good intentions, their technical virtuosity and the possible quality of their teams - are likely to remain unsatisfactory for a long time to come.
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