Spotify: A Rant from a Classical Music Fan

November 25, 2016, 1:25 PM · I don't want to listen to Dvorak's String Quartet No. 13 on "shuffle."

Yet that was my Spotify experience. Spotify is the way my teenage children listen to all their music, a streaming program with access to quite a lot of music. I thought I'd try it.

So while on my morning walk, I searched Spotify for Dvorak Quartet No. 13 - my quartet had read the piece and I wanted to listen to it. Happily, they had a recording, apparently paired on an album with Quartet No. 10, with the Bennewitz Quartet. I have not paid for "Premium" Spotify, so I needed to listen to several commercials (for a sandwich chain) before I could "enjoy the next 30 minutes for free." The only option, at that point, was to hit "Shuffle Play" -- listening to selections in album order is another "Premium" feature.

I hit "Shuffle Play," figuring it would shuffle the tracks on the album I chose. Wait, why am I hearing Dvorak: "The Water Goblin, Op. 107"? I hit the forward button to skip to the next selection, and I did get my Quartet No. 13 -- the third movement. Well okay, I need to listen to them all, so fine, I'll start with the third movement instead of the first. I listened. Some seven minutes later it moved to the next track: wow, lucky me, I got the fourth movement! After the fourth movement -- wait, this is a quartet, but not the quartet I wanted -- oh, it's No. 10. Hit the forward button: Dvorak Cello Concerto, first movement? What? Hit forward: String Quartet No. 10, the second movement. No. Hit forward: No. 10, fourth movement. In the vernacular of my kids, WTF. Hit the forward -- I've hit "forward" too many times and it won't do it again unless I get "Spotify Premium" for $10 a month.

Beethoven listens to Spotify
Image by Violinist.com.

Well, I guess I got to hear two random movements, but it was a constant bother. It felt very much like an Internet-age experience: will I actually listen to this quartet or can I be distracted into changing track every few minutes? Why does it even want me to do that? Life was simpler with a cassette tape and a Walkman.

I realize that I could clear up much of this up by shelling out $10 a month for those "Spotify Premium" features. And honestly, I've always paid for my music, and I'm happy to do that. The problem is that my initial experience has not convinced me that Spotify (or Apple, or pretty much any other similar service) is a good platform for classical music, nor that it aims to be. And I'm reluctant to send a monthly sum to a company that seems to fundamentally misunderstand the music I wish to hear, a service which makes it a chore to stay on track. "Premium" implies some kind of enhanced experience; for classical music it's just minimally being able to hear it the way it's supposed to be heard.

One big problem is that quartets and symphonies and violin concertos are written in movements, designed to go in a certain order. Dicing up the symphony and randomizing the order wrecks that experience. (I'd argue this can be a problem when listening to a carefully planned album of music by an artist of any genre --The Beatles? Prince? Kendrick Lamar?) Sure, sometimes I want to hear just one particular movement, but I don't want it decided for me. I also don't want to finished some long, beautiful movement, only to be hurled into the middle of an entirely different piece.

What would be the ideal service for a classical music fan? What would feel truly "Premium" to me, that might I pay $10 a month for, or even more? Here are a few items on my fantasy wish list:

What would a "Premium" music streaming service look like to you? And feel free to rant, or recommend!

Replies

November 25, 2016 at 08:46 PM · I absolutely love Spotify! Their selection is extremely vast, and I have found it to be very user friendly. I do have a Premium account, and it does have a lot of the features you mentioned that you would like, but of course, not all of them. Since you, don't have a Premium account, I'm not sure if my fix for your shuffle issues will work. I had an annoying time with it as well when I first started using Spotify. Make sure to tap of the first track of the album, NOT on Shiffle Play. Also, make sure the little "shuffle" icon is gray not green. If you push shuffle play at any point, it sets your default to shuffle so you have to turn that off. If you turn that off, then press the first track of the album, it should play from there in order. Like I said, I don't know if this is an option for a non-Premium account.

November 25, 2016 at 08:58 PM · Thanks for the tips, Victor! A non-Premium account only allows "shuffle," and nothing else. It's interesting also how easy it is to accidentally set "shuffle" as the default, even with a Premium account! I do see your point, how it's easy to access so many things. But I still want to fantasize about a truly "Premium" classical service, maybe we can dream it into existence! For someone who loves Spotify, is there anything you would add for classical enjoyment and ease?

November 25, 2016 at 09:30 PM · I have never used it before, but after reading your blog I tried it just now. I have just randomly searched for Mozart, so I have found Mozart Prague symphony played literally by "various artists". The recording has been poor interpretation and sound quality, so I did quit after few seconds. I wonder who is the service intended for. Not stating the players means that it is expected (and intended) to be just "elevator music".

I doubt it could satisfy classical music lovers. Why we have abandoned the world of CDs? Why in newest cars only MP3 is abailable mostly? Or do new US cars have still "old school" stereo?

November 25, 2016 at 10:37 PM · I've never used Spotify (and am not likely to in view of foregoing comments), but I get all I require from the online Naxos Music Library. Everything is streamed in a respectably high quality from Naxos's own library and a number of other labels they have an arrangement with, totalling over 125,000 CDs and almost 2 million tracks. The list get added to every day. It's probably quite difficult NOT to be able to find what you want.

Naxos evidently has an arrangement with IMSLP whereby if you subscribe to IMSLP ($22 Canadian per year) you get not only free access to the whole of the Naxos library but immediate downloads of sheet music from IMSLP - if you're not a subscriber you have to wait quite a little while for a sheet music download to start, and then a little longer for the next . . . and longer for the next . . . Very persuasive!

NML looks like it ticks every box on Laurie's wish list.

November 25, 2016 at 10:45 PM · Another major problem: the search functions on most of these services are not set up for classical music. Nor do they even give you full information. For example, we have an album of Josh Bell's famous pieces, and they do not even list the composer of the pieces! Instead, you have several different Concertos in A or Concertos in G, never knowing which is which. These services seem unable to accept that music has multiple "artists" (ie composer and performer). And critical information like movement title or opus is also frequently omitted. It makes finding music extremely challenging.

November 26, 2016 at 12:12 AM · Trevor, thanks for the suggestion!

November 26, 2016 at 01:29 AM · Laurie, I'm surprised to learn how inexperienced you and some others here still are with music services, and think that that poor experience would tend to continue while we have few classical music fans using such services. The hesitation to pay for the service doesn't really help the argument either, particularly when some of those limitations are removed when one pays.

I've used Rdio, Tidal, and Google Play Music extensively, and Spotify briefly. They all have their limitations and specific advantages. Tidal doesn't use lossy encoding, so is suitable for home listening in my view, but Google Play and Spotify have a larger catalogue. Google Play at least widens the track description when I rotate my phone, unlike Tidal, which won't even show me the movement or even the key signature, so I might only see a page of "Shostakovich: String Quartet N..." for all tracks out of a compilation, so the only way I can go to a specific quartet other than the first is by having a reference around which shows me all the preceding movements for all the preceding quartets.

The primary motivation for having access to such services is not for the awesome quality of the mobile apps, but simply for the access to the music, which, even for a relatively limited service such as Tidal, is vast, and populated with many outstanding works which most people, even classical music fans, may not be aware of, or be willing to buy and thereby listen to without hearing of it beforehand.

The best thing about these services however in my opinion is that they're interchangeable and disposable. When Rdio went out of business, it didn't take me very long to find a replacement which had its catalog and more. If you subscribe to one such service, the odds are that the others' catalogs will be very similar, and if one turns out to be better for your needs than another, switch your subscription next month. Or just discontinue it if you're not using it and finding the listening worthwhile.

November 26, 2016 at 02:26 AM · Hi J Ray, sounds like you have a lot of the same issues with these apps as I have described. The difference may be that I grew up with CDs and over 30 years have bought quite a library of them, which I can also upload to my iTunes library, etc. That makes me less inclined to settle for the inconvenience of one of these services for the sake of access. Still, I think the technology could probably offer a lot, if it evolved into something that takes into consideration the unique nature of classical music and find a way to better compensate artists.

November 26, 2016 at 07:22 AM · Last month I had an MRI and they offered Spotify during it. They put it on "classical". First was Pocabell's Cannon played by a string quartet, then Beethoven's Fur Elise on piano, then Pocabell's canon again but on piano, then Elvis 'Wise Men Say'. There were adds between all of these so that was my half hour of classical music. As a violist I have played many many weddings and really didn't care to hear these pieces!

November 26, 2016 at 07:46 AM · One request to add to Laurie's list - lossless sound quality - eg FLAC.I'm using Youtube a lot at the moment and the sound quality varies from respectable to dreadful. I have used Spotify but it's stopped working and I don't like it enough to be bothered figuring out why and fixing it. I would consider a streaming service with a comparable selection in good quality sound, with the features which Laurie suggests. I'll keep an eye on this thread for suggestions.

November 26, 2016 at 11:14 AM · As an amateur violin player who plays ONLY traditional music Spotify is a fantastic music resource. However when I want to listen to classical music (which I do often) my Spotify premium account enables me to search for specific historic recordings and hear them in high quality audio. I route my music through a Marantz PM6005 integrated amplifier with a high quality digital-analog converter and the sound is excellent. Just saying, the cost of Premium is, to me, worth it.

November 26, 2016 at 03:47 PM · No personal experience with Spotify as a direct user or subscriber. But thanks to Spotify Premium, I hear uninterrupted music tracks several days a week at the gym during workouts.

I have YouTube Red, which costs the same per month as Spotify Premium. I typically run hours of classical music tracks while I'm busy with indoor chores in other rooms. No more BLASTED LOUD OBNOXIOUS ADS interrupting a quartet or symphony or opera. I don't use ear-buds or earphones -- thank goodness; but for the sake of those who do, I only wish the 2012 FCC ruling on loud ad volumes for broadcast TV had extended to these newer media as well.

My only real complaint so far is that some content uploaders don't list names of lead and supporting players or singers -- and sometimes fail to mention which orchestra is playing. They appear to get enough complaints about this, though, from commenters. Let's hope this induces them to fix the problem.

November 26, 2016 at 05:44 PM · Apple music is the only way. It has endless selections and customizations, and basically has ever album from the last 60 years.

I used to limit how many albums I buy through Apple music because of the expense, now I add a few albums every single day, I'm easily adding a few thousand dollars of albums to my music every month. For me it's a no brainer as I have Apple everything and have always used Apple Music, so getting the newer subscription has absolutely changed my life.

They also have really amazing world renowned curators creating playlists for classical music. I've never seen a service that has treated classical music so well.

November 26, 2016 at 07:56 PM · Here's a few specific reasons I like using Spotify.

1. There are a lot of different recordings and artists available, especially for more well known works. I can listen to four, or five, or more artists playing the piece I'm working on to hear their ideas. I don't own a personal library of music with that many different artists, and it would take time and lots of money to build.

2. I can create my own playlists! I create different playlists for every concert I have coming up, so that I can listen to that music frequently and in one place. I also have created large playlists of some of my favorite music to just listen to. No more skipping by pieces I don't like because I chose them all!

3. I can download music to my device and play it without wifi. This really handy for road trips if I want to use less phone data or I want to use my iPad.

I get these features for the price of one iTunes album per month. I was paying that anyway before Spotify just to have recordings of pieces I was working on. I would gladly try something else, but I have been very happy with Spotify Premium mainly for the above reasons.

November 26, 2016 at 10:18 PM · Spotify, Pandora, etc. are generally designed for use to play random music you might like rather than a specifically tailored playlist; if you want to watch an entire string quartet through, you're probably better off just searching Youtube. Additionally, any software built primarily around a shuffle feature is bound to have issues with its shuffle feature since its analysis will almost exclusively revolve around the thumbs up/thumbs down buttons, which most users won't use to indicate what makes sense in a given shuffle.

Software like Youtube, on the other hand, has much more information at its disposal (likes, dislikes, comments, clicks, your tendencies, regional tendencies, global tendencies) as a baseline, and its mix feature allows you to manually remove videos, has no skip limit, and allows you to save playlists you like.

The ability to download the music is not exclusive to paid services; to prevent simple audio capture software from working, you would have to heavily encrypt all of the traffic from the source to the output device, which is very expensive and thus only really used in movie theaters (video is encrypted all the way to the projector so that employees can't screen-cap, keeping high quality piracy from taking place until after the DVD release).

The free option gives complete freedom and higher quality and versatility in virtually all situations sans access to a few locked-down tracks.

November 27, 2016 at 02:51 PM · I am with Laurie, I have never liked/become comfortable with any of the internet music options. While I don't have all that many CDs...I like the CD/album format. I like the cover and cover art, I like the information leaflet, I like knowing what's present on each album (including producers, etc.).

I am actually more irritated that I can't find a decent CD player anymore. The last one I purchased (a few months ago) sucks. So I concede that I might have to give up on my preferred format and shuffle along with the rest of the herd.

Despite being an Apple-hater, I do have an iPod and iTunes. I have quite a large iTunes collection at this point too...but I rarely use it because I find it totally inconvenient.

I may try subscribing to Naxos/IMSLP, but I think I will have the same issues with it: inconvenient for my purposes.

I absolutely hate YouTube, but again, will use it (as a reference) because it's there...not because I think it's great. Well...other than for cat videos.

I'm not a dinosaur in that I'm reluctant to try something new...but none of the 'new' formats are as satisfying for me as the old CD and CD player - and I am cranky that I have essentially lost the ability to use my preferred format.

Could well be I've just given up too soon and missed out on something that does meet my needs. I remain open to innovation...

November 28, 2016 at 03:57 PM · The Naxos/IMSLP arrangement came into being only in April this year, which may well explain why many haven't yet become aware of it.

I've done a brief comparison of iTunes and Naxos with an example search for recordings by Oscar Shumsky. Both have some important recordings in common (the Ysaye Sonatas, the Glazunov, Bach and Mozart concertos); but Naxos is the more comprehensive of the two, having for instance a stunning live performance with Earl Wild of the Kreutzer sonata and the Tchaikovsky A minor Trio that I could not find on iTunes. Strangely, both websites lack Shumsky's masterly performance of Rode's 24 Caprices, but that is fortunately still available on YouTube. One hopes that Naxos will soon see its way to providing the Rode, done of course to its usual very acceptable recording quality.

On the money side there is little room for argument: the iTunes Store charges about £8 per Shumsky CD; the Naxos/IMSLP subscription for the year is about £17 (depending on the Canadian dollar exchange rate) for unlimited streaming of over 125000 CDs.

Naxos have what must be one of the most comprehensive listings of composers and performers around. Biographies of composers and performers are usually provided. Booklets bundled with their CDs are downloadable as PDF documents. Meta data is also provided. Individual tracks can be selected for streaming, and a whole sonata or symphony can be selected with one click if desired.

As I mentioned in a previous response, Naxos also list recordings from scores of other labels. One or two labels (Warner for example) can sometimes get difficult over "rights" issues if you're not located in the USA. One recording I selected from the Naxos list was not allowed for me to stream for that very reason. However, looking further down the list I found the self-same recording by the same artist and orchestra (and date) available for me from a major German label. Now can someone explain that for me?!

Naxos stream their audio at a sample rate of 32000Hz (the standard sample rate for CD recordings is 44100Hz), presumably for bandwidth reasons. This means that the top recording frequency you get with streaming is just over 16000Hz, which is also the top limit for most high quality radio broadcasts. If one wishes to record, for personal and private use, a streaming download then a sample rate of 32000Hz on the recording device is all that is necessary, and one is also at liberty to choose the download format - WAV, FLAC (about half the size of WAV), mp3 for example. For me, an mp3 rate of 256 or 320 cannot be distinguished from CD quality.

What is the minimum broadband requirement for reliable audio streaming? I don't really know, although I've heard 3 or 4 Mbps suggested, and hopefully today's broadband speeds are well in excess of this; so I'll leave someone else to give a more reliable answer. But one important consideration for satisfactory reception of any subscription audio streaming is to use a router with a cable broadband supplier.

November 28, 2016 at 08:21 PM · As others have posted, Naxos Music Library is the ne plus ultra if you can afford it. If you cannot, and Lord knowns I can't, Spotify Premium is by all means the best because of the depth of its catalogue. There is a learning curve in terms of how to search for things - the indexing is 'orrible - but as a premium supporter, once you find them, you can download the pieces/specific recordings you like and listen to them offline. On a desktop, which is where I usually listen to music, Ctrl-S turns shuffle on and off. I love the way you can create playlists of various recordings of a particular movement and toggle among them for comparison. I've never been an i-anything person so I'll stick with my Spotify Premium thanks very much!

November 29, 2016 at 04:53 AM · So, Laurie, it sounds like you want a music service that is very much like violinist.com! Why don't you find some great tech people, a few investors, and start one yourself? Have it be a part of the website. Cheers!P.S. Since I was a classical dancer in addition to being a violinist, I would add a dance section with all of the lush violin solos in the ballet repertoire that you never hear outside of Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty.

November 29, 2016 at 09:05 PM · Apparently a lot of people (and I don't just mean classical music lovers) don't mind tracks playing in random order. When I was shopping for a new MP3 player, I discovered to my distress that most of them ignore the track number in the ID3 tags - so you get shuffle play whether you want it or not, even within a single selected album. Fortunately, the MP3 player I bought has a "file folder" option, where you navigate to the folder you want and it will play tracks in order of file name. So when I upload MP3s to it, I ensure that the file name of each track in an album is prefixed by a two-digit sequence number. It's a bit of extra fiddling, but I only have to do it once per album.

Thanks for the note about the Naxos service. I'm a paid-up member of IMSLP, so I'm looking forward to seeing what I can find.

November 29, 2016 at 10:18 PM · Jeff, I'll see when I can get to that! ;)

November 30, 2016 at 02:18 PM · A few months ago I retired my old Samsung semi-smartphone in favour of a state-of-the-art Android phone. The old phone does not have a touch screen but a touch pad instead, and one reason for the phone's retirement was that the keys on the keyboard are inconveniently small for my fingers. I have since found that without its Sim card but with a removable 32GB memory card the old Samsung makes an excellent mp3 player that can be used with other audio formats such as Wav and Flac, with all the options you could ever want for organising the tracks, such as: albums, artists, genres, composers, years, playlists, and recently played. There are options for shuffle on/off and various types of repeat, and audio effects.

The audio output through decent 'phones is very good quality, as you would expect from Samsung.

For all this to work well I have to set up the metadata for all the tracks properly beforehand on my PC before downloading everything onto the memory card, but it is well worth the trouble, as Charlie said. With albums you can usually do the metadata work globally rather than track-by-track.

One advantage of using an old phone exclusively as an mp3 player is that since the lithium battery no longer has a phone service, wifi and all the other bells and whistles to look after, I can now get about 2 weeks audio usage before I need to think about recharging.

One requirement I had when I chose the new Android was that it should have provision for an easily changeable battery and memory card, unlike an alternative operating system (no names no pack drill, but they say that one a day will keep the doctor away) where you're invariably stuck with batteries and memory cards that are firmly not user accessible.

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