Music Streaming and Classical Music

Classical music is really lagging behind when it comes to music streaming. Which is historically odd, considering that the length of classical music, for instance, was a crucial reason for the CD. Some readers might recall Norio Ohga, the president of Sony, who specified that the compact disc should be able to hold 75 minutes of music. Why this length? So he could listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony without flipping the record over. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t a desire to hear Bruckner’s symphonies in their uninterrupted totality that launched the idea of music streaming.

Naxos Music Library (NML) was launched in 2003, a few years after Napster, but it hasn’t moved on much since. It’s the most extensive classical music streaming service, but at £261.60 annually, it’s no match for other streaming services, whose classical music selection is abundant enough to satisfy almost everyone. Spotify, in comparison, works out at £119.88 annually at the very most.

While mainstream streaming services demonstrate all the slick ease-of-use that has come to characterise this technology, the interface for NML can only boast Soviet-like clunkiness with a Windows 2000-era aesthetic. Even to just play an album you have to select the tracks, then open a pop-up player. Its only advantage is the inclusion of PDF booklets, which are themselves a less-than-perfect format for online use. A GIF of me browsing on the site:NML.gif

Plus, NML offers inferior audio quality in every way. Mainstream streaming services once preferenced pop, whose music is little harmed by compression and lower bitrates compared to classical music. But now Spotify etc. all stream in excellent quality for really low prices (NML does not). Spotify even has gapless tracks (NML does not), essential for a lot of classical music. In 2017, music streaming can be technologically indistinguishable to CDs.

Music streaming isn’t a complete blessing, I admit. Easy access to music recordings can inspire a kind of apathy. Why do I need to play musical instruments and think about music creation when my smartphone does it all for me? And it can inspire superficiality, such that no recording is listened to in any particular depth.

But there’s also a problem with recordings in general. I was very much intrigued by tenor Mark Padmore’s argument in a fairy recent Guardian article that recordings corrupt the way we listen to music:

… we are led to believe that because we know how a piece goes, we actually know the piece. I would argue that there is always more to learn, more to discover and because music unfolds over time we can only ever hold an impression of a piece in our mind. The second danger is that we start to hear live performance passively, as if it were an aide-memoire to the unfolding of the familiar. We probably notice if something goes wrong but otherwise we can essentially allow a performance to remind us of what we think we know already. We hear, but we don’t listen.

The third danger is that our reliance on recordings encourages a strange connoisseurship whereby they are judged against one another. There is a misguided search for the definitive performance – as if there could be one single ideal interpretation. People pull out obscure vintage recordings in the way that someone might show with a vintage wine. This is where the record collection resembles the stamp collection – music becomes a possession rather than a process. The point is, we are in danger of losing touch with the greatest strength of classical music – its liveness. The unrepeatable, unpredictable nature of great music performed in the moment for that moment only.

I certainly know I’ve been guilty of all three of those. I sometimes wonder if it would be better if I knew just a few dozen great pieces in exceptional detail than knowing, as I do, several hundred recordings, most of which in very little detail. It’s telling that the only times in which I have studied pieces in any great depth was when learning them on guitar. And when playing a piece, you quickly realise how many interpretations — all quite valid — that are available to you. You’re not trying to perfect your performance necessarily, but to understand what the score makes possible. It’s quite a depressing thought that any one of those possibilities could become permanent and unchanging.

How did I get through this post without mentioning the top-dog of streaming services, YouTube? And why not use it to play the recordings of Glenn Gould, who by the end of his career had retreated entirely into the recording studio:


5 thoughts on “Music Streaming and Classical Music

  1. I did enjoy that piece by Mark Padmore in the Guardian: can easily verify in my own experience, too, the ‘corruptions’ he discusses.

    I used the Naxos Classics Online HD streaming service for several months until they discontinued that– have never tried Naxos Music Library, although have been meaning to– thanks for the introduction to it. (May be mistaken, but I believe it’s true that an annual gift (thirty dollars?) to IMSLP permits one “full access” to NML as a benefit– which is indeed a deal considering the prices advertised at NML).

    Have you tried Primephonic and Qobuz? Was on the verge of ditching Spotify and taking up Qobuz but am not actually supposed to have access to it (am in the US… ) and so wasn’t sure what might happen when I attempted the transition from the free trial to actually paying for the service.


    1. Thanks for reading the blog, Marc. Wow, you’re right IMSLP. That’s quite the bargain. Nevertheless, one can very easily gain free (non-premium) access to NML by using an institution’s account (generally not too hard to find).

      I have been using Primephonic’s free trial for a bit now and find the selection very poor. But least it is structured in a way that makes sense to classical music listeners: divided into concertos, symphonies, composers, performers etc. I wish it would give up on this whole ‘curation’ nonsense, though. Also had a look at Idiago, which is similar but has a slightly more unusual, albeit still very limited selection. It seems almost ‘indie’. Qobuz is new to me. It looks tailored to audiophiles, which I’m certainly not.


  2. Read your comment on Norman Lebrecht’s post on Daniel Barenboim’s speeches at Slipped Disc, and guessed it was you.

    Totally agree about the ‘curated’ business– in a world where you have to search for knowledgeable critics, why should I trust the staff of an Internet-based start-up to select music for me? pft. (It does look as if the ‘curators’ at Idagio are the most of them classical musicians, which has to be a mark in their favor.)

    Oh, I am far from being an audiophile (I use the laptop and the £130 Bose speakers Bryan suggested) but I can tell the difference between the Spotify streaming and the CD standard or better streaming at Classics Online that was and Qobuz et alii now: but I struggle to decide whether I can justify spending twice as much money on ‘better quality sound’; very much a First World Problem.


    1. Even then, it’s no sure sign that they’ll be capable *shudders* ‘curators’. The only people I can think of who have ever demonstrated the encyclopedic knowledge of recordings and musical insight required are those working at classical record shops, and one of the last one of those here shut down recently.

      On speakers, I recall Bryan had a parable of sorts about an old maestro getting much more out of his teeny speaker than a tech-obsessed audiophile. For what it’s worth, I can’t tell the difference between Spotify and CDs, but I have a £20 speaker and a pair of headphones only worth slightly more… As I’m writing this what comes to mind is one of Ives’ characteristic exclamations: ‘My God! What has sound got to do with music!’

      And nice to know you were curious enough to follow up on the Slipped Disc comment. That got me a ridiculous amount of traffic, as political posts invariably do.


  3. As you point out, that is the other consideration re the ‘better quality streaming’, sure: that I can hear the difference doesn’t necessarily mean anything other than, I can hear the difference.


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