On the Classical Cloud

I’ve been turning over Alex Ross’ piece from last week’s New Yorker, The Classical Cloud, in my mind for a little while now. A sort of nostalgic look at CD collections and the problems with subscription-based music, there’s a lot right with it. Ross writes:

My working process as a critic revolves around a stack of disks that I call the Listen Again pile: recent releases that have jumped out of the crowd and demand attention. None of this happens as easily on the computer. I experience no nostalgia for the first music I downloaded, which appears to have been Justin Timberlake.

A Listen Again pile will be familiar to any music fan who’s grown up in the last fifty years. For some, like my dad, it was a stack of vinyls wedged between record player and cabinet for convenient access. For others, it was a compilation patiently cobbled together on a 180-minute mixtape. For me, it was four or five CDs squeezed into the ludicrously oversized pockets of the trousers I used to wear to school.1

But the absence of nostalgia for downloads is Ross’ experience, and mine differs. Today, I keep an equivalent playlist on my phone: albums I haven’t heard for years, that deserve a listen anew, or that I’ve just bought, and am listening to on repeat. And, unlike Ross’ Justin Timberlake download, I have favourite artists and albums I’ve never heard on CD: Kate Bush, Martin Stig Andersen, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio; Peter Aidu’s extraordinary solo performance of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase.2 Would my enjoyment of The Sensual World have been greater if I’d heard it on CD instead? I don’t see how it could have.

Ross goes on to highlight some of the problems with streaming, the primary one being the pittance made by musicians and labels on Spotify. Writing of Leon Fleisher’s extraordinary recital All the Things You Are, released by family-run independent label Bridge, Ross concludes that “only by buying the albums are you likely to help the label stay in business.” He may be right.

But he makes a point in the article that I find it hard to agree with:

There is a downside to the glut of virtual product and the attendant plunge of prices. … [T]he streaming model favors superstars and conglomerates over workaday musicians and indie outfits. Its façade of infinite variety notwithstanding, it meshes neatly with the winner-take-all economy.

Ben Thompson, author of the business blog Stratechery, has argued that the internet provides a new kind of market. The incredible size of the internet allows a handful of giant corporations to dominate, as large corporations always have, to a scale that they haven’t reached before. But the diversity and reach of the internet are also unprecedented, and no corporation can satisfy every desire of every customer. 

This provides extraordinary opportunities for small enterprises too: there are niches that large companies will no longer be able to fill, but which are precisely what a small proportion of people want. And a small proportion of the people on the internet can still be an enormous number—more than enough to sustain a small business. Thompson has compared this, on his podcast Exponent, to a rainforest: fertile undergrowth thriving beneath enormous trees, but with little room for anything in the middle.

It’s not, in other words, a winner-take-all economy. It may be winner-take-most, but all is beyond the reach of even the most massive players.

That’s where Bridge comes in: in order to survive, independent labels like Bridge have to be extremely focussed, and there has to be a clear, desirable distinction between them and their competitors. And it may be that Spotify is not the place for them, that they need some other means of distribution that will make them both easier to discover and allow them to reap more rewards from that distribution. I do see some opportunities here: Spotify’s labelling of classical music is, as Ross points out, even more chaotic and inconsistent than iTunes’. And classical music makes complex demands for a relatively small audience: it may not even be worth Spotify’s or Apple’s while to fix it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth anybody’s.

People have been prophesying the death of classical music for generations, but today it has a wider reach and more opportunities to be heard than at any other time in history. Labels will come and go, and small labels will be vulnerable for a long time, but the music is still here because people love it, and people always will.

1 Honestly. For what it’s worth, the other pocket contained a far-from-slimline Discman, cigarettes, and keys.

2 For two pianos. It needs to be seen to be believed.

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