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Classical music must get streaming on point today

We pioneered Primephonic as the Classical Collective, a digital platform where you can find every classical music piece ever recorded. While we were going at lengths explaining our digital ambition to many other labels, Steve Long, Director of Signum Records, was the first independent label who came to us and said ‘we want to be part of it’. 

There was no hesitation. This is the attitude we, the classical collective, need to embrace in today’s digital age.

To truly understand where classical music fits within the digital sphere today, we must look at how we first got here.

The entire music industry saw its golden age during the 80s and 90s, when revenues for the music sector rose worldwide well above average consumption growth. This was largely due to the introduction of the Compact Disc in 1982. The first test of a CD pressing was of a recording of Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie played by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. At the same time, one of the reasons why a CD could hold 74 minutes worth of audio, was because the standard compact disc be able to fit Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in its entirety. This was a great example of how classical music and audio technology went hand in hand to create a vibrant recording industry.

However, the global music sector took a dive from 2000 onwards for the next 15 years, mostly due to illegal downloading via P2P file-sharing platforms. As a result, the global music industry nearly lost half its revenue between 2000 and 2015. Following this revenue decline, budgets for talent development and artistic risks also fell substantially.

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Source: Statista

When Spotify introduced a music streaming platform in 2008, a new way of consuming music legally was born and the music industry started seeing growth again. While this uptick from market decline to market growth occurred for most music genres by 2015, it failed to do so for classical music.

Classical music has a steady market share of 3–5% among all music genres on most distribution channels such as radio, ticketing, downloads and CD sales. However, according to the latest BMI report, classical music represents only 1% of music streaming volumes. Goldman Sachs estimates that by 2030, 70–80% of global music revenue will come from streaming. Classical music is thus missing out on the dominant channel of the future.

At Primephonic, we are hugely concerned about this development. The genre that we love so much which truly enhances human development is at risk. It may not be a very visible or acute risk, but a ‘silent killer’. If classical music does not get streaming right, classical music revenue will continue declining. This will result in less income for recording artists and less funds with labels and producers to undertake more extraordinary recordings on lost and new works. Surely the famous composers such as Beethoven and Mozart will always be remembered. However, works from less mainstream composers such as Paisiello, up and coming composers like Roxanna Panufnik, or even less popular works of Bach will not continue to be recorded and distributed in a way that can reach a wide audience.

Streaming is an undeniable future and classical music must jump on this bandwagon now, before it misses it and gradually looses its relevance. Primephonic believes we can bring classical music back on track. But then we need to understand the reasons why classical music is barely streamed and act upon them.

Existing generic streaming services are designed for consumption of pop music while classical music lovers have different needs and ways of getting to what they like. Finding your favourite classical work or recording on major streaming services can be a frustrating experience.

You often do not find the work you are looking for. If you manage to find the right work, it is often a track, which is a movement that is part of an entire work. And once you finally have found the entire work, it is typically not the most famous or your favourite recorded interpretation of it. All these stem from a much more complex metadata structure classical music has.

At Primephonic, we are working on a matching algorithm that links all the metadata information we get from labels, to our classical repertoire database built by a team of in-house musicologists. With every matched track towards a movement and work, we can present a seamless browsing experience so you do not worry about needing to fully spell your search query correctly to get to where you want.

For example, try searching for Tchaikovsky in all 40 different spellings and we will present you just one composer profile and all his works.

This matching algorithm also allows you to see all different recorded versions of the same work in one place so you can instantly compare multiple recordings of your favourite classical works! This also helps display album information in a more concise manner, even for complex compilation albums.

For a majority of classical music aficionados out there, listening to classical music in compressed mp3 format -the only audio format available on nearly all existing streaming services- is just not good enough.

With the advanced wireless technology available today, high-res audio streaming is no longer just a dream. However, Lossless and high-res audio streaming has an intrinsic transmission rate and requires relatively constant bandwidth to deliver without issues. This is not always possible on the Internet, which is a shared environment and the availability of bandwidth can vary and thus, cause delay in delivering hi-res audio.

At Primephonic, we work closely with OraStream to power our streaming audio player. The Orastream technology uses enhanced MPEG-4 Scalable Lossless (SLS) audio coding that transforms lossless audio into fine-grained, scalable layers and generates an embedded bitstream for fully scalable audio.

When a user connects to our server, the user’s network connection is monitored continuously in real-time. When a user’s connection is fast, all layers are delivered for lossless audio playback. When the connection is poorer, the server removes some layers to match the slower connection. A proprietary patented process optimizes the perceptual audio quality at intermediate bit-rates.

This restores the sonic integrity of music quality to mobile devices without sacrificing the details and nuances that are essential elements of the listening experience, especially when it comes to enjoying those 40 voices that all come together in Spem in alium, the light touch of strings taking over the brass section towards the end of Bruckner’s 4th Symphony, 4th movement, or simply to savour a profound moment of that Tristan chord. In other words, with our audio technology, we can offer flawless Hi-Res streaming, the audio format that classical music deserves.

Our streaming service also addresses other pain points classical music lovers have on existing streaming services. To meet information needs of classical music fans, those streaming on Primephonic can read and learn more about the music they are listening to while listening. And with a team of curators, we also can make much more original recommendations than existing streaming services do who only use algorithms to make recommendations (which as a result are often rather mainstream).

Our goal is to use the most suitable technology to cater to the needs of classical music lovers. If we succeed to do so, classical music can claim its fair share in the rapidly growing streaming market and turn the tide from reducing revenue to increasing revenues. Classical music must get streaming right, eventually, to ensure a better future for the genre, the artists and its fans.

This article was published in the August 2018 issue of Classical Music magazine.