Classical music streaming no longer plays second fiddle

Spotify and other streaming services aren't very good at managing classical music, which is where new dedicated service Primephonic comes in.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
3 min read
Multi-Story Orchestra Perform In Peckham
Mary Turner / Getty Images

If you want to see an argument, all you need to do is put two music fans in a room together. Even in the rarefied world of classical music, fans get into heated debates over artists, genres and all sorts of other musical differences.

A new streaming service devoted solely to classical music has a whole team dedicated to just those sorts of debates.

Classical music download store Primephonic on Wednesday launched its streaming service. The service streams a catalogue of over 100,000 classical music tracks, available in CD quality 16-bit FLAC format. An unlimited subscription costs £14.99 or $14.99, with a free 30-day trial to ease you in. 

Why does classical music need a dedicated streaming service? To answer that question, go to Spotify or Tidal or whatever streaming service you use, and search for Bach, or Tchaikovsky, or the Moonlight Sonata. You'll get a jumbled list of titles and artists. Title and artist is all the information you need for a pop song, but a classical work comes with many more variables: the performer and the composer, the orchestra, when it was recorded, whether it's part of a larger work, and so on.

In other words: smarter use of  metadata , the information tagged to each file, is crucial for searching and streaming classical music.

UK - Nicola Benedetti and Valery Gergiev at the Usher Hall as part of the Edinburgh International Festival.

Classical music has different requirements to pop music in the digital age.

Robbie Jack/Corbis

That's where Primephonic's team of genre-debating experts come in. A team of six musicologists and classical students carefully categorise each and every piece of music that's uploaded into the catalogue. This painstaking curation of the metadata for each piece of music means you can find relevant works when searching across different criteria, from the name of the composer to the orchestra performing to the era of music in which it was composed.

The experts also unite works that can end up fragmented across a streaming service's catalogue, perhaps because individual sections of a work appear as separate tracks or are known by different names due to language or other considerations. For example, composer Richard Wagner's opera can be known as Der Ring des Nibelungen or the Ring Cycle -- but Primephonic recognises they're the same work.

From wax cylinders to Auto-Tune: The technology that changed music

See all photos

This leads to a number of cool features that other streaming services don't have. For example, you can listen to a single track and then find the entire work of which it is part -- and then add that whole multi-track work to a playlist as a bundle. Each work and composer has a home page packed with information like the date a work premiered. As well as searching by genre you can search by mood, or even see the programme coming up at your local symphony orchestra.

And in another neat touch, the thumbnail for the currently playing track is a little spinning vinyl record.

Another interesting feature appears behind the scenes. Primephonic pays out royalties based on seconds streamed rather than the number of times a track is played. That's because classical works tend to be longer than pop songs -- so if royalties were based solely on number of streams, Mahler's 100-minute third symphony would earn the same payment as a three-minute Taylor Swift track. Shake that off, Gustav.

Yes, Mahler and many classical composers have shuffled off to the great concert hall in the sky. But royalties are still paid to the performers and composers who arrange and perform each piece.

Major labels Sony Classical and Warner Classics today join niche classical labels already available on Primephonic including Naxos, Harmonia Mundi and 2L. More works will be added throughout the summer and an iOS app will follow later this year.

Tech Culture: From film and television to social media and games, here's your place for the lighter side of tech. 

Batteries Not Included: The CNET team shares experiences that remind us why tech stuff is cool.