By Ricky O’Bannon
In the world of digital music, classical recordings have long felt like a square peg in a round hole.
Industry standards that were developed for 4-minute pop songs often seem mismatched when applied to a symphony or concerto. The pay rate for any stream is mostly uniform, whether that is a four-minute pop song or a 20-minute fugue. If a listener streams for an hour, the label might receive reimbursement 15 times if that hour was spent listening to each track of a rock album or maybe only three times if it was spent on three movements of a symphony.
Phillip Sommerich of Classical Music magazine wrote earlier this month that streaming is leaching revenue from classical labels. The big problem to Sommerich is one that has been echoed in other areas of music: Consumers have been conditioned that online music should be free. Whether or not streaming is in fact a leach or as some argue more of a driver of audiences to live performances than an actual revenue source, there are also more practical issues for classical.
The largest complaint by far when it comes to classical music streams or just digital downloads has to do with metadata. Metadata refers to the descriptions for files that are embedded into any song or piece. For a pop song, that includes artist, song name and the album, which has become the standard formula artists must follow when submitting a track to digital music services. Things tend to get a little more complicated with classical tracks. The composer, piece title and album name are important, but so are things like the conductor, the ensemble or the soloist performing.
Sometimes that information is shoehorned into the title of a track, but that doesn’t always make it easy to sort through or to find in a streaming service. Say you own multiple recordings of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. Sorting to find all of them together is easy, but the metadata tags make it difficult if one recording leads you to want to listen to more pieces by that pianist, conductor or orchestra — and this has become a major complaint for classical commentators.
As Anastasia Tsioulcas wrote for NPR recently, this lack of data makes tracks harder to discover on streaming services, which can lead to frustrated fans and unheard music. “Call it the ‘tree falling in a forest’ conundrum,” Tsioulcas wrote. “If classical recordings can't be found and heard, they functionally cease to exist.”
Interestingly if there is any other genre who feels classical music’s pain of inadequate metadata, it might be hip-hop, which regularly features guest artists on a verse and can only include that information in cumbersome titles. Hip-hop fans might want to be able to sort tracks that feature a guest verse by Jay-Z on another artist’s song just as much as classical fans want to be able to easily filter for tracks that feature Leonard Bernstein as the conductor.
This week, a Nashville-based start up called Dart Music is looking to fix that metadata problem as it launches what it calls “the first fully automated digital distribution platform for classical music.” Dart has raised $1.5 million in start up capital and is essentially offering a way for mostly independent classical artists working outside one of the few remaining large classical labels to get their music onto digital music sales platforms like Amazon or iTunes and digital streaming services like Spotify or Rdio without compressing information about their track into the inadequate metadata trinity of artist/song title/album. (See the compony's jaunty, animated promo video below.)
The service could go a long way in helping independent classical artists get their music out there digitally, but the very fact that this service itself is seen as a viable business proposition should be encouraging news to practitioners and fans of this music. Considering classical music only made up only 1.4 percent of total music consumption last year, Billboard posed a very simple question to Dart’s founder and CEO, Chris McMurtry: Is the classical music genre big enough to for its own digital distributor?
“It absolutely is,” McMurtry said.
McMurtry is a composer and might be forgiven for the unbridled optimism that a lot of us working in the industry might share for the business viability of this music. However, McMurtry and his co-founder Richard Jacobson are both Apple veterans who understand the tech and music industry and see this kind of service as both helpful to musicians and viable as a business.
At a time when the classical recording world is going through growing pains figuring out new models and resolving the technical challenges that often come with new tech, start-ups like Dart or the recent announcement that European music group PIAS sees classical label as an asset worth acquiring should be signs of encouragement.
Classical recordings are still a bit of an odd fit in the world of digital music, but that is changing. Even small changes like having the metadata to explore what orchestra or conductor is playing on a given track are important because that allows users the chance to explore and go listen to more music. If users have the tools to explore and navigate the incredible canon of classical recordings, the entire classical industry will be in a better place.