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?

How BBC Sounds signals how the BBC describes its output and better aligns it with competing streaming services

I’m planning on saving my notes and reflections from yesterday’s marvellous Middlesex University/PRS Music #CMIC2018 classical music conference until later in the week, once I’ve got some paid out of the way first. 

But a recent change to the BBC website – the roll-out of the web-based ‘BBC Sounds‘ experience – presents an opportunity to share one of the ways attending #CMIC2018 has shifted my perspective. 

‘BBC Radio’ now becomes ‘BBC Sounds’

First, the website change. In some respects its a minor affair. it’s the first change in a longer-range strategy I remember people talking about when I was working at the BBC – shifting audience perceptions by changing the label from ‘Radio’ to ‘Sounds’. 

I despise the word ‘Sounds’ (I’d much prefer them just call it ‘Audio’) but I get the strategy behind it. ‘Sounds’ describes the content whereas ‘Radio’ describes how that content is distributed. 

And that distinction is important right now.

At #CMIC2018 one quote flashed up on the screen during Sara Lambrecht’s paper on the shifting role of classical music recordings – the idea that record companies had acknowledged how their identity had changed in the music sphere – formerly sellers of products, in 2018 record companies saw themselves as media organisations distributing content.

This may seem like a subtle point to get excited about, but it means to me that in some respects record companies are competing with broadcasters whose dominance of the content world has historically been underpinned by their USP: linear broadcasting. 

The live experience acquires importance, perhaps even urgency, when there’s an event attached to it – a news event for example. The rest of a broadcaster’s content – that which doesn’t need to be ‘live’ – is just the same as an album track on Spotify.

Now that on-demand is less of a culture and more an expectation (like getting running water when you switch a tap on), broadcasters need to align their product with the other streaming services available to audiences. That means user experiences online have to be similar to meet the implicit expectations of those users the likes of the BBC depend on. 

And that means stopping referring to radio as radio.

I have a fairly good hunch that also means no longer making schedules available online. It means changing the way users access the actual content, signposting types of content as opposed to a point in a schedule. The latter demands newcomers to a platform already possess an implicit knowledge of the schedule. What the BBC wants to do now is fuel discovery with more useful signposting, cutting across traditional schedules and conventional brands to create a content experience that more realistically reflects a user’s mixed range of interests. 

BBC Sounds is the first stage in what could broadly be seen as an attempt to break down content silos, acknowledging that its audience likes different stuff and that the only way of meeting that need is to move away from conventional radio stations and pursue a potential listener’s implicit or explicit needs. 

And to do that means focusing on a user experience both on the BBC Sounds website and in the accompanying app. And aside from the fact that I hate the name of it, I think the content strategy works because it groups BBC content (by which I mean programmes, tracks, features etc) around themes. 

The curated running orders – clips, music and features and stuff. Surprisingly good.

The Fall Into Autumn ‘Must Listen’ (I hate ‘Must Listen’ too – quit being directive – I’ll listen if I want to) is a good example. Things grouped around the idea of there having been a change in season, drawing me in with evocative imagery. It’s clickable in itself and there’s the promise of a range of content that I perhaps wouldn’t otherwise have considered seeking out. 

And in that way, the BBC is positioning itself alongside streaming services and recording companies, conscious that it has a wealth of content in its databases that it wants users to be able easily access. 

And that means that each piece of content the BBC makes available has the same potential as a single track available on Spotify. 

As much as I’m sad about the first step in the demise of radio, I’m pleased to see they’ve cottoned on to what the recording industry figured out (and acted upon) a few years ago. 

But in terms of my primary destination – classical music – I suspect the change may confirm that the path I’ve already set down is the right one for me. I spent most of the summer only listening to live broadcasts on-demand, preferring instead to listen to tracks and albums via streaming services.

I suspect that while the new BBC Sounds aims to attract the new and the curious, it will only compliment my preferred method for discovery online. Mind you, I imagine they probably didn’t implement it for someone like me anyway.

I’m also wondering whether – and this is just a hunch – whether there will come a time in seven or eight years time when the Charter is up for renewal again, that the only way to access the BBC’s audio on-demand will be to pay a subscription for it. In fact, I might even put money on it. 

Digital Concert Hall now on Smart TVs

It’s taken a bit of a while, but the Berlin Phil’s Digital Concert Hall service has now been turned into a Smart TV app.

I only discovered the development by chance when I browsed the brochure for the forthcoming season; a reminder that print sent in the post remains a powerful way to have a positive impact especially when physical mail is sporadic and underwhelming. 

It’s a welcome development. As a potential subscriber I like the way the Digital Concert Hall keeps the live streaming experience separate from YouTube (where I experience most other live streams), setting expectations high with performances from an internationally-renowned orchestra.

Sign up

Signing-up is swift too – one very clear on-screen prompt directing me to use another device to input a unique PIN. After that the page on-screen updates automatically. Then its one click to watch Beethoven 3 for free. Setting up a login automatically grants me a free 7-day ticket – activated when I select a billable piece of content. 

The full subscription for forty live streams plus access to an archive of concerts and interviews, is around about £140. That works out at £3.50 per concert or £11 a month. That final equivalent is a lot for me (on top of the other services I susbcribe to on a monthly basis), which is what prompted a different line of thinking. 

What is really striking (and fundamentally depressing) is the distinct lack of women in nearly every visual cue – holding slides and video. The talent roster too is dominated by men in both print and in-app. The Berlin Philharmonic appear to have overlooked the fact that the app is a window on the orchestra’s attitude to diversity and representation. In this way, the Berlin Phil presents itself as entirely out of step. The more I think about that observation, the more I think it would stop me from signing up for the service.

What I want next

What I’d sign up for in a heartbeat is a service with a Connected Smart TV app that offered a range of content delivered in a variety of different formats – audio, video, text or imagery, live, catch-up and archive. And importantly, for the arts world to really grab the bull by the horns, it would need to be a rich cultural offering too – visual art, performing arts, literature, etc. It needs to be unmediated – so no presenters please.

I’d also like there to be curation of mixed format content that could be played across devices – eg start on the TV and then switch to a mobile or tablet when I move to a different room. And when I’m in the room with the TV, I’d like the app on my mobile or tablet to run alongside what I’m watching on the big screen in front of me, effectively giving me a second screen’s worth of content supporting what I’m watching/listening to.

Where’s Medici TV’s app?

There’s one other service which is en route. Medici TV does offer multi-disciplinary arts experiences but it is, incredibly, only available via a web browser. Quite why they’ve not gone the whole hog and developed even an app for IOS or Android I’ve no idea. Visit any European concert where Medici TV are partnering and the organisers will gladly tell everyone of the distribution network’s involvement.

Medici is a big deal (even if it doesn’t appear so in the UK) which suggests the capital exists to invest in the technology. Maybe its in development. Where the BBC is concerned, my hunch is that ‘BBC Music’ – a brand often referenced on-air – might be the first tentative steps to a similar sort of offering.

But as far as I can make out, there’s nothing out there which pulls together all of the arts both on-demand and curated in a Connected TV/multi-device app. All that requires is for multiple arts organisations to join forces and recognise what they could achieve together in terms of digital access. For some organisations that’s going to be a little more difficult than for others. 

The much-maligned Digital Concert Hall (it costs an arm and a leg to keep going I understand) is one step closer to that. 

Moist Eyes at the Philharmonia’s #VirtualOrchestra

Last week I visited the Philharmonia’s #VirtualOrchestra at the first location on its UK tour – Bedford.

I’ve followed the Philharmonia’s digital endeavours with a keen interest over the years, ever since the first outing of the award-winning Universe of Sound in 2012.

Universe of Sound (an immersive multi-media multi-speaker presentation of Holst’s Planet Suite) is now part of ‘Virtual Orchestra’, a free digital experience that also includes the opportunity to experience the Philharmonia in Virtual Reality.

Virtual Orchestra runs in Bedford until 10 August 2018.

During my visit to Bedford last week I got some time with Event Manager Elizabeth Howard and Director of Residencies Jonathan Mayes for a podcast – I’m hoping to get that released later this week.

In the meantime, the video at the top of this post should give you a flavour of the marvellous Universe of Sound – something which did unexpectedly prompt me to well-up on camera.

Polish Radio Experimental Studio spotlighted in major exhibition

This July,  the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and Zentrum für Kunst und Medien in Karlsruhe, Germany, will open Through the Soundproof Curtain . It’s the first major exhibition of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES) will interest anyone in electro-acoustic music and, in the UK, those with a healthy obsession with the Radiophonic Workshop. 

The exhibition opens on 13th July and will celebrate the 60th anniversary of PRES and its influence in today’s artistic experimental landscape.

Opened in 1957 PRES quickly became a European centre for original electro-acoustic music. Like the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, PRES shares similarities with the WDR Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne, the Studio d’Essai in Paris and the RAI Studio of Phonology in Milan was setup by the Polish state broadcaster. It’s output contributed to various radio and TV broadcasts too.

An exhibition that documents the imaginations of a new wave of creative artists powered by the emerging technologies of the mid-twentieth century. A tantalising prospect. 

Through the Soundproof Curtain opens on 13 July at ZKM at the Centre for Art and Media, Karlsuhe, Germany. It runs until 6 January 2019.

The picture at the top of this post features is’ Krzysztof Wodiczko: Personal Instrument 1-3 (1969), performance documentation’ © Krzysztof Wodiczko, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź.

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.