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Classical Notes

Classical Notes: September 2, 2011 Archive

Spotify: Aesthetics and Accesibility

Posted at 4:51 PM on September 2, 2011 by Hans Buetow
Filed under: In the media, Musical philosophy

On Wednesday we talked about what Spotify is, and then yesterday we outlined some of the financial issues that Spotify raises for Classical composers.

Today we will explore some of the more abstract issues surrounding Spotify.


Pipedreams host and executive producer Michael Barone said in a meeting the other day that "there's no such thing as too much good music." But, is that true? Spotify has resurrected exactly that conversation amongst some classical music composers and bloggers recently.

On one side you have the argument that this emphasis on access devalues the music, making it harder to listen to anything at all. Turning music into wallpaper and taking away the incentive to value it through a transaction is, according to some, surrounding us with more music that we can use - I once knew a man who had collected so many chairs in his house that you couldn't find a place to sit.

Gabriel Kahane, son of virtuoso pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane and hugely talented musician in his own right, illustrated this point of view earlier this week on his Tumblr blog.

The next day, a blogger with the handle ulyssestone posted a response from the other side, saying that the world has changed, and that no one benefits from bemoaning the loss of the old ways. Ultimately, he seems to conclude, we should embrace the shake-up that the access to music that Spotify presents.

Kirk McElhearn, another blogger, also weighed in on the subject, engaging Gabriel Kahane in a back-and-forth where his main original point, taking issue with Gabriel Kahane bemoaning the degradation of "serious" listening, caused Mr. Kahane to amend his post to remove the word.


The question still remains, though, about how accessible the music really is on Spotify. Sure, there might be a lot of classical music on Spotify for us to listen to, but another complaint about Spotify echoes an old complaint about most digital music services - how on Earth do you find what you're looking for?

The particular problems of classical music taxonomy are unique in music, and have yet to be adequately addressed by everyone from Google to Apple to Spotify. We here at MPR deal with this problem every day, as classical music requires far more variables than most music software can handle, thereby making it difficult to adapt tools for use with the music.

The problem stems from the relationships between the many parts of a classical piece of music. In every other type of music besides classical, there are only 4 major considerations for organizing a song:


Nearly all digital music management software is set up along these lines - just look at iTunes - and it works great. The problem is when you try to fit into those categories most classical music, which uses 6 related, but ultimately different organizational elements:


You see this problem constantly when labels are forced to merge "Piece" and "Movement" into the slot for "Song". And, of course, there is the perennial problem of who belongs in the "Artist" category - the composer, conductor, soloist, or ensemble? Different labels tackle that question in different ways, with some even putting all four into that one field.

It is this difference of structure, combined with a lack of standards amongst labels, that can make searching for a particular recording a difficult and sometimes frustrating activity.

Steven Smith, critic from the New York Times, fills us in on how Spotify stacks up on this issue.


There are, of course, other issues that have been raised about Spotify by classical musicians, composers, and audience members over the last two months, but they live in the technical realm, and will probably be addressed in subsequent updates to the service.

1. Playback is not gapless (there is an ever-so-brief pause between each track), which is not how many Classical tracks are designed to be consumed.

2. Sound quality is an issue for some audiophilic Classical fans, as free accounts can only stream at a maximum of 160kbps (a CD is around 320kbps.) This is not as much of an issue if you want to put up $9.99 per month for the Premium service that allows you to stream at the coveted 320kbps, except that reports are that only about 30% of available music is offered at that higher quality.


At the end of the day, streaming services like Spotify have come, in the last few years, to signify a new dominance in music distribution. While it may not mean the end of the physical musical object, or of the composer, or of the audience, it feels to many like the musical landscape is shifting, and will continue to shift as we intuit our way forward. As with previous models for distribution, the unsustainable portions will hopefully be identified and addressed with an attention that comes from exactly this conversation.

A new way of consuming music, and of having your music consumed, may ultimately affect the music itself. This is a necessary adaptation that is the natural byproduct of any intersection of technology and art. How we address that issue, when it starts to become apparent to us, will shape a new generation of musicians, and will hopefully give us all a new way to listen.

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