In Streaming Age, Classical Music Gets Lost in the Metadata

Credit...Mikel Jaso

When Roopa Kalyanaraman Marcello, a classical music aficionado in Brooklyn, asked her Amazon Echo for some music recently, she had a specific request: the third movement of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto.

“It kind of energizes me, motivates me to get things done,” she said.

But the Echo, a voice-activated speaker, could not find what she wanted. First it gave her the concerto’s opening movement; then, on another try, came the second movement. But not the third.

Exasperated, Ms. Kalyanaraman Marcello gave up.

“Just play something else!” she recalled saying.

Her frustration may be familiar to fans of classical music in the streaming age. The algorithms of Spotify, Apple and Amazon are carefully engineered to steer listeners to pop hits, and Schubert and Puccini can get lost in the metadata.

Classical music has always been a specialized corner of the music business, with a discerning clientele and few genuine blockbusters. But by some measures the genre has suffered in the shift to streaming. While 2.5 percent of album sales in the United States are classical music, it accounts for less than 1 percent of total streams, according to Alpha Data, a tracking service.

Two new companies, Idagio and Primephonic, see an opportunity in the disconnect. Both are challenging the big platforms by offering streaming services devoted to classical music, with playlists that push Martha Argerich over Ariana Grande, and databases tailored to the nuances of the genre.

“The mission we are on is to turn the tide for classical music the way Spotify has done for pop,” said Thomas Steffens, the chief executive of Primephonic, which is based in Amsterdam and went online last fall.

The genre has been an awkward fit for streaming partly because of the major services’ metadata — the underlying organizational schemes for identifying titles of recordings, the personnel associated with them and other details.

For most of the music on Spotify or Apple Music, a listing of artist, track and album works fine. But critics of the status quo argue that the basic architecture of the classical genre — with nonperforming composers and works made up of multiple movements — is not suited to a system built for pop.

Search Spotify’s mobile app for “Mozart Requiem,” for example, and a confusing list of dozens of albums follows; since there is no special field for a composer, most of those albums designate Mozart as the “artist.” On Apple Music, a composer field has become standard only in recent months.

“If you have Herbert von Karajan conducting a Verdi opera with Maria Callas, who is the artist?” said Till Janczukowicz, the chief executive of Idagio, which is based in Berlin and started in 2015.

“This is not a crisis of genre,” Mr. Janczukowicz added. “It is a crisis of the packaging of an industry.”

For contemporary classical artists, metadata is not just an abstract consideration.

When the composer William Brittelle recorded his latest album, “Spiritual America,” he enlisted the Metropolis Ensemble, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the indie-rock band Wye Oak. But when it came time to put the album on streaming services, Mr. Brittelle said, he was told that the only way to include those collaborators was to list them all on every track — which, he said, “makes it look ridiculous.” He opted to use only his name.

“I’ve obsessed for seven years over track titles and track order and having everything sit right,” Mr. Brittelle said. “It just ruins everything to have all that information on every track.”

Primephonic and Idagio have tried to solve that problem by building more extensive databases, with extensive listings for composers, soloists, orchestras and conductors. Idagio’s data is tended by a team of 10 musicologists in Slovakia, Mr. Janczukowicz said.

Like any streaming service, Primephonic and Idagio feature colorful welcome pages with new releases, custom playlists and photos of celebrities (for those who consider Matthew Barley and Daniil Trifonov celebrities). They also offer various sorting tools to let connoisseurs sift through the voluminous listings of, say, Beethoven’s string quartets to find that one recording by that one ensemble. Primephonic even lets users search by opus number and key.

Primephonic costs $8 a month and Idagio $10 a month; both services charge more to stream music in high resolution. Neither company would disclose how many paying subscribers it has.

A report released last week by Midia Research, which studies online media, portrayed a classical market in transition, with a relatively small economic impact but wide potential. According to the report, which Idagio commissioned, classical recordings generated $384 million around the world last year. That’s a small piece of the $19.1 billion of sales revenue for all recorded music last year, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

But the Midia report, based on a survey 8,000 people, found signs of promise. Although the average age of a classical listener was 45, 31 percent of respondents ages 25 to 34 included classical among the genres they “like listening to.”

And not everyone in the classical world is convinced that Apple, Spotify and Amazon are bad for the business. Each of those companies has a vast customer base, with the potential to steer listeners to classical tracks. Increasingly, that has happened through mood-based playlists — “Relaxing Piano,” “Intense Studying” — that intersperse classical tracks with those from other genres.

Placement on a prominent Spotify playlist helped a recording of the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata by Paul Lewis, a British pianist, reach 49 million plays, a number that plenty of pop acts would be happy with.

Those playlists “are exposing new, young audiences to classical music without them realizing initially that they are listening to classical music — they just know that they like what they are listening to,” Mark Mulligan of Midia said in an interview.

Such serendipity may be possible only if classical music exists on services alongside pop, hip-hop, country, Latin and the rest. Last year, the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo released “ARC,” a Beyoncé-style visual album of pieces by Handel and Philip Glass, illustrated by videos directed by luminaries like Tilda Swinton and Mark Romanek.

Mr. Costanzo said he was frequently pinged on Instagram when new listeners encountered those videos, often on Apple Music.

“The segregation of classical music would be a shame,” he said.

Mr. Steffens and Mr. Janczukowicz, of Primephonic and Idagio, argued that the major services’ algorithms would always nudge listeners toward pop.

“The winner-take-all economics” of online media, Mr. Steffens said, “means that if streaming doesn’t work for jazz and classical music, then those genres are just collateral damage.”

Classical record executives said they welcomed the arrival of Primephonic and Idagio, but were not necessarily displeased with the performance of their music on Apple and Spotify.

PIAS, a European company that owns the label Harmonia Mundi and works with orchestras that have their own imprints, like the Berlin Philharmonic, gets most of its listeners these days through streaming. And most of them come through Spotify and Apple.

“You can’t be unhappy with them,” said Katie Ferguson, the director of streaming strategy and business development for classical at PIAS. “They are really propping up our business.”