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: