Classical music streaming requests up by 25.2%

Out today, a British Phonographic Industry tie-in with Radio 3’s Music Matters under the headline of ‘Classical Crescendo for Music Sales & Streams in 2018’. I kid you not. What does that headline even mean?

Let’s just go with it for the time being. The top line is this: classical music streaming requests are now up from 19.5% (2017) to 25.2% (2018). Yay. Well actually, no. Not yay.

I didn’t listen to Music Matters. If I had, I imagine there must have been quite an awkward moment if/when presenter Tom Service ran down the list in the Top 10 Classical Albums. Here is that list for you to pick over. Consider which of these albums I’ve listened to as you go down the list.

  1. Andrea Bocelli / Si (Decca)
  2. Aled Jones / Russell Watson / In Harmony (BMG)
  3. Sheku Kanneh-Mason / Inspirations (Decca)
  4. Katherine Jenkins / Guiding Light (Decca)
  5. Andre Rieu / Romantic Moments (Decca)
  6. Andre Rieu / Amore (Decca)
  7. Ludovico Einaudi / Islands – Essential Einaudi (Decca)
  8. Various Artists / The Ultimate Classical Collection (UMOD)
  9. LSO / John Williams / A Life In Music (Decca)
  10. Alexis Ffrench / Evolution (Sony Music)

Some people I’ve read today have commented on how classical crossover ‘bolsters’ the British Phonographic Industry’s latest figures on streaming in the classical music genre. I think the more accurate word would be ‘dominate’.

There’s a reason it dominates and that’s because that’s what is commercially successful (and therefore seen to be worth the investment by record companies).

Crossover dominates it doesn’t bolster

The majority of the list as a whole is crossover. There’s no getting around that.

And whilst I don’t have a personal issue with crossover (I am for the sake of research and authenticity listening to Einaudi as I write – I can’t say I’m enjoying it especially – it doesn’t go anywhere emotionally), I worry that the categorisation of this content as classical music doesn’t represent the classical music world at all, and is as a result doing it a disservice by not supporting it.

And whilst everyone will point to Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s Decca release at number three in the Top 30 chart as being a fundamentally good thing, that album is, it has to be said, largely a collection of reasonably light pieces. I’d be interested to know for example where the majority of streams of Sheku’s album comes from. Is it, as Spotify indicates, No Woman No Cry? Or are people streaming his performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto? I bet they’re not.

Art music doesn’t sell enough for the record industry to care

This reinforces an important point for me: the record industry by and large doesn’t especially understand my listening tastes as a classical music lover. And yet, it’s happy to categorise music that by and large I’d actively avoid listening to.

Put very simply, art music doesn’t sell enough for the record industry to care.

That’s both a good thing and a bad thing.

That there’s such a small market for specialist classical music (I hate the terminology, but I may need to just suck it up for the sake of this post and the myriad of definitions it demands), then people like bloggers, commentators, and the classical music press are needed by those seeking to increase exposure to their work. It’s a fragile ecosystem. We can collectively make a difference.

BBC seeks to position itself

Predictably Radio 3 Controller Alan Davey and his PR team have seized the moment to position the radio network in amongst the good news trumpeted (boom!) by the BPI’s announcement, pointing to how Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Jess Gillam (BBC Young Musician alumni don’t forget) have ‘played a key part in this online growth, as well as more established names as Bocelli, Yo-Yo Ma, and the broadening ambient appeal of Max Richter’.

As far as I can see I don’t see Jess Gillam on either the Top 30 Classical Albums list (I think I’m right in saying she doesn’t actually have a complete album out on Decca yet), or on the Most-Streamed Classical Artists List either, of which Ludovico Einaudi sits at number one. I think its a stretch to even suggest that their marketability, whilst good for the BBC no doubt, really translates into greater accessibility for the classical music canon. To do so is the equivalent of finding a hook and hanging a tired-looking t-shirt on it.

I hope these figures show how classical music can use new and established platforms to offer a rich vein of musical discovery for those who don’t yet know that classical music works for them and can work for anyone who appreciates good music and good musicians.

Alan Davey, BBC Radio 3 Blog, Saturday 12 January 2019

Davey’s post is the inevitable piece of PR that advertises the BBC’s fledgling (and some might say flawed) BBC Sounds app, making out that plays a central role in discovery of classical music amongst a younger audience.

This is an odd strategy given that the majority of the music (save for perhaps the film music which absolutely deserves its place on the list btw) doesn’t fit with Radio 3 anyway.

If the BBC wants to make that claim they need to provide the data demonstrating consumption via its own app to go some way to back Davey’s view up.

More questions about the BPI’s data

What’s lacking from the BPI data shared is who exactly is streaming the music.

What is the age range of the listeners? How are they getting to the tracks and the albums? Streaming playlists (personal or industry curated), self-discovery (search, peer recommendations), or via live broadcast or catch-up tools? What were the physical sales of exactly? Does ‘classical’ even its broadest BPI categorisation demand a reference in the BPI originated announcement so as to give a fuller picture of the industry?

This in particular in the press release attracts my attention:

It is encouraging that streaming services are already focusing more on the profile of Classical, but if continuing structural challenges, such as around ‘search’ on streaming platforms, can be more fully addressed, for example by making it easier for users to find pieces of music online by ‘composer’, ‘conductor’, ‘orchestra’, and ‘label’ (an important consideration to knowledgeable classical buyers), then it is likely that more classical consumers may be drawn to subscription streaming services. 

British Phonographic Industry, January 2019

I find this slightly out of kilter with the experience I now have with services like Spotify, Primephonic and IDAGIO.

It’s about meta-data

First, it’s not about improving search functions, but standardising the meta-data used to describe the recordings on the streaming servers. The three main streaming services have made significant in-roads to improving search in an of itself, and given that I can now find significantly more works than I did say a year ago, my impression is that the owners of the content (ie the record labels) are devoting more resources to applying more useful meta-data.

Little surprise that classical music collectors are still buying physical discs. In 2017 there was a 6.9% jump in sales of CDs, and these sales represent nearly 60% of UK classical consumption. (By ‘nearly’ they either mean 58% or 59%. If that is the case, why not just basically say the actual percentage?)

The motivation for purchase seems obvious – physical discs come with sleeve notes (I personally don’t think its only to do with sound quality) which is something which represents an opportunity for streaming platforms: support sleeve notes. Why not find a way of selling bolt-on subscriptions for contextual material?

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