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Messy metadata and awkward algorithms mean classical music fans are short-changed on streaming platforms

Lost masterpieces: Classical music is the poorer cousin on the likes of Spotify PICTURE: CAMERA PRESS

SEARCH for Beethoven’s 5th on Spotify and it’ll pull up an overwhelming and seemingly arbitrary list of recordings based purely on keywords found in the track title. Given the platform contains around 500 orchestral recordings of the piece, it means finding what you want is like wading through treacle — and it also means that while the biggest pop artists and record labels are enjoying the successes of streaming, classical music isn’t reaping the same rewards.

The issue, says Thomas Steffens, CEO of classical streaming platform Primephonic, is that the algorithms of the likes of Spotify and Apple Music are not sophisticated enough to handle the complex metadata associated with classical music, especially for pieces containing several movements.

‘The problem is that Spotify and other music-streaming services are mostly designed for pop music, which from a data perspective is very simple,’ says Steffens. ‘There’s the artist, the name of the album, the name of the song and that’s it.’

Maestro: Thomas Steffens

But Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.4, for example, has an opus number, a nickname and movements — too much for streaming services to handle.

‘The whole data structure is much more complex and the idea that there are multiple artists for one song is not something Spotify is designed for,’ says Steffens. ‘If classical music wants to survive in the digital era it must fix this problem, otherwise it will lose its relevance and no longer be available.’

Primephonic has amassed more than 1.5 million tracks in its catalogue since launching in the UK last year and is on a mission to ‘do for classical music what Spotify did for the music industry’.

Since conducting a survey with music research company Music Watch, four areas of concern were identified among frustrated and tech-savvy classical music fans — search, information, audio quality and recommendations.

‘Classical music fans can’t find what they’re looking for, they don’t get recommendations that inspire them and they don’t get information on what they’re listening to,’ says Steffens.

Primephonic’s solution is to offer a platform that caters to different and demanding tastes, from the know-it-alls to the people who want to discover more.

Its bespoke ‘smart search’ tool has been designed to make it easy to find works based on name, composer, opus number, nickname, period, choir and more. It also uses experts to input data to ensure accurate results and correct artist information.

Results: Primephonic versus Spotify showing a search for Beethoven’s 5th

With uninspiring playlist recommendations on Spotify such as ‘chilled’ or ‘relaxing’, it’s easy for serious classical music fans to get offended, says Steffens. It makes sense that Primephonic has an edge when you consider the unusually high manpower administrating its classical listings — it has a team of 28 enthusiasts, all from various musical backgrounds, from orchestral musicians to backing singers.

Most classical music has been around for two or three hundred years, so it’s difficult for streaming platforms to recommend ‘new’ music. For Primephonic, it’s about helping users consider music they don’t yet know about based on recommendations from the team, whereas Spotify’s algorithms are designed to introduce you to new music purely based on your listening history.

‘That is why we do the curation here,’ says Steffens. ‘We know a lot about classical music and make out-of-the box recommendations. We don’t use algorithms, we use old-school people to make recommendations.’

As for sound quality, the platform has a £15-a-month Platinum membership giving lossless 24-bit FLAC playback, or a cheaper 320kbps MP3-only Premium package, at £8 a month.

With classical music accounting for five per cent of all music listening worldwide (album sales, concerts and streams etc), according to Primephonic’s research, but only one per cent of the listening on Spotify, the platform has its work cut out. But classical music streaming is on the up, rising by 42 per cent last year in the UK, according to figures from the British Phonographic Industry.

Research also shows that a growing audience for the classics is under 35, with Deezer reporting a 270 per cent rise in subscribers to its most popular classical playlist, 43 per cent of them being millennials.

With a self-imposed deadline of 2022 to become a profitable platform, the ‘Spotify for classical music’ hopes to create a better future for the genre and preventing it from becoming irrelevant. ‘We’re on a mission to fix classical music’s streaming problem. If we don’t, it will eventually die out,’ says Steffens. ‘We feel it is an art that deserves to be preserved.’

The Primephonic app is available on iOS, Android and via the Primephonic web player online

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Did you know that Beethoven’s appearance was once so scruffy, he was arrested for being a tramp? That’s just one of the fun stories you’ll hear when tuning into David Walliams’ ten-part Marvellous Musical Podcast series on Classic FM. A bit Horrible Histories meets classical composers, it’s aimed at children but that doesn’t mean adults can’t enjoy Walliams bringing to life the stories of the great composers.

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With classical music at its core, BBC Radio 3 has long wanted to welcome a new audience to tune in and get involved. That would explain why it’s given 21-year-old Jess Gillam (above), a saxophonist extraordinaire, her own show, called This Classical Life. Each week Gillam interviews a guest, usually another successful young professional musician, while they share music that inspires them in a digestible 30 minutes.


Looking for an alternative? Idagio was among the first classical streaming apps on the scene and remains a go-to thanks to its focus on creating a curated experience. New artists are recommended based on your listening habits, playlists are curated depending on your mood and it promises lossless audio quality whether streamed or downloaded. With Idagio and Primephonic, Bach on the go has never sounded so good.