The whispers swirling around the orchestra pits from London to New York were true. Tech giant Apple has confirmed that later this month it will launch Apple Music Classical, a streaming service and app with the largest catalog of classical music in the world. The world of streaming – listening to unlimited music via a desktop or smartphone app for a fixed amount per month – is dominated by pop, rock and hip-hop. The growth has been fueled by Gen-Z and millennial listeners who prefer Bad Bunny to Bach and think Chopin is something you do on ASOS.com. But this is all about to change as Apple lifts its metaphorical baton.
Some shrug their shoulders at this news. It’s been five years since listening on streaming services like Spotify overtook buying or downloading songs as the primary way we consume music. And there’s already classical music on the existing Apple Music streaming platform, as well as on Spotify and small specialty streaming platforms like Idagio and Stage+. So what if Apple moves further into the market?
Well, for starters, nothing on this scale has been done yet. According to JP Morgan, Apple Music will have 110 million paying subscribers by 2025 (existing subscribers will get Apple Music Classical for free). Apple’s classic catalog will contain five million songs. Until now, using a mainstream classical streaming service has been like trying to play an English horn with a blindfold on — impossible to navigate and disappointing to listen to. For Apple’s service to work, the rulebook must be completely torn up.
Will Page, former chief economist at Spotify, says classical music never really fits into the established streaming model. He remembers going to a meeting about streaming at the classic label Decca Records when he was with the Swedish company. Page was joined by “the best data scientists” Stockholm had to offer. “We came out as if we had been hit by a bus,” he recalls. “[We thought] ‘This does not work. The way you get paid, the time it takes to compose, the nature of the collaboration, how classical music is classified. This is a square pin and streaming is a round hole.’”
So how exactly will it work and what are the specific hurdles Apple needs to overcome? The first hurdle relates to metadata, the digital equivalent of library index cards. This sounds dry, but good streaming relies on super-savvy use of metadata, which describes to the listener the content being streamed and helps them discover new and similar music. In the pop world, metadata is a relatively blunt tool; Search listeners by song or album title, artist name, or genre. It is much more complicated with classical and operatic music. Listeners should be able to search by composer, orchestra, soloist, conductor, record label and interpretation. According to the Discogs website, there are 1,658 recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Where to start? Apple says “intuitive” browsing features on the Classic app will allow people to search the library by composer, conductor, or even a record’s catalog number.