When illegal file-sharing started to become widespread at the turn of the millennium, worldwide music industry revenues tipped into sharp decline as CD sales were eroded. In the last decade, however, that decline has been arrested as the money from streaming services like Spotify more than compensated for the fall. Growth returned in 2015, and streaming now accounts for 25% of total music industry revenue.

Except, Thomas Steffens tells me, for classical music, which suffered the same drop in sales of physical CDs, but didn’t see the upturn. Where classical music accounts for 5% of all music consumed worldwide, it accounts for just 1% of streaming volume and just 0.3% of streaming royalties. Where typical pop labels are getting close to half their revenue from streaming, classical labels are getting a factor of 15 less. And that’s something that Steffens intends to change: he’s the CEO of Primephonic, a start-up company who are launching a specialist streaming service for classical music lovers.

Thomas Steffens
Thomas Steffens

The idea of Primephonic was conceived in 2016 when Dutch classical label Pentatone (the former Philips Classics) looked at the figures and started asking themselves why classical music wasn’t benefiting from the rapid growth of streaming. The conventional answer is that classical music fans are older, but that simply didn’t hold water: Steffens points out that “the average classical music lover is 46, which is not that old. My parents are 71: they use a combination of Spotify and Sonos every day. So then we did some serious market research and we asked one question: ‘Dear classical music lover, why don’t you stream?’ And they gave us four answers. Actually, they said ‘we like streaming. It works well for pop music – we just don’t like it for classical.’”

The four reasons were these:

  • I cannot find what I’m looking for

  • The audio quality is not good enough

  • The recommendations are not very interesting

  • The background information is missing

Steffens and his colleagues concluded that for a genre that only represents 5% of the audience, the big players weren’t going to solve those “pain points”, so the only solution was to do it themselves. And that led to the “bold plan” to create Primephonic. They had to start by mimicking Spotify’s quality of unlimited access to all music (at least in the classical arena), and that implied getting contracts with 98% of the labels – 408 contracts so far, including Decca, DG, Warner, Sony, Harmonia Mundi and so on. Next came the task of addressing each of those four problem areas.

Anyone who has seriously tried to find a particular classical recording on Spotify is familiar with the first item on the list. With practice and lateral thinking, you can get there in the end, but it’s a tedious and imprecise process. The reason for this is the arcane topic of metadata – the information that the service’s database holds about each track – which Steffens describes as “the essence of any streaming service”. Popular music needs just three items of metadata for each track: the Artist, the Album and the Song. That’s a fraction of what classical music needs, where a track might be one of several movements of a concerto, which has a composer and is performed by a conductor, an orchestra and one or more soloists (any of whom may be different from one recording to another). And that’s to say nothing about complexities like Opus numbers, different editions, arrangements, or – trickier still – the full cast of an opera.

Primephonic screen shot - Mozart 5

Without reliable, rich metadata, any search facility is doomed. So one of the biggest efforts in creating Primephonic has been to create their database of classical music works: ten people, all trained musicologists, have been working on this for over a year. “In our service, if you type in ‘Mozart 5’, it will ask you if you mean Piano Concerto 5, String Quartet 5, Symphony 5. But it will only show you one work each. Spotify will show you all albums containing Mozart and 5, which is hundreds. We just show you the works you think you might be looking for, then you click on one, and we show you all the recordings.”

Is the audio quality on Spotify or iTunes really a deal-breaker? Primephonic’s research found that classical music fans are considerably more likely than fans of other genres to be concerned about the difference in quality between MP3 and lossless compression. “Basically, one third of classical music lovers just don’t care – they say MP3 is totally fine, and that includes some people who are very serious about classical. About one third say yes, ‘I prefer lossless but not enough to pay extra for it’. And then there are about one third of classical fans – especially in the over 35 range – who say ‘I truly prefer lossless, to such a degree that I would be prepared to pay a little bit extra’”. Therefore, unlike Spotify and Apple (but like Tidal and Qobuz), Primephonic offers users the option of lossless compression, at a price.

As to recommendations, Primephonic are staying away from two of the typical choices – an Amazon-like algorithm-based “if you liked A, you might like B” or a critic-led “our recommended version of Beethoven’s 7th is by xyz conductor and orchestra”. Rather, they are focused on encouraging music lovers to broaden the range of works they listen to. “If you look at the library of classical music, it contains about 100,000 classical music works. If you really know about classical music, you may know about 10,000 – so there are 90,000 that you don't know. So the task of our curation team is to introduce our members to works that they don't know yet but will love. That’s a separate section in our streaming service that points out to hidden gems; every day they will be updated by our curation team.”

In the days of the LP, classical music lovers benefited from the generous space on a 12 inch square album cover, which would often contain plentiful material about the works and artists. The arrival of the CD in 1982 cut that space by a factor of five; Spotify and iTunes more or less eliminate it altogether. Will Primephonic, I ask, return us to the past glories of the album cover and liner? The answer is “eventually”: Steffens hopes that they will be providing full album notes some time next year. What they’re doing right now is to provide composer biographies, with the bonus, undreamed of in LP and CD days, of being able to see the whole list of that composer’s works to be clicked on and listened to.

The Primephonic app is due to be released on September 6th. By then, Steffens says, the full catalogue should be in place, and the functionality to browse by composer and work should be in excellent shape; the browse by artist will take longer to perfect.

Global Music industry revenues © IFPI

But even if you imagine a service that was perfection itself to its users, another part of the puzzle remains: if classical listeners could be persuaded to stream exactly as many hours of music as their popular counterparts, the industry would not come close to matching their income. That’s because Spotify and its lookalikes share out royalties on the basis of the number of times a track is played. In the time that a classical music fan has been listening to the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 – generating one track play – a Rihanna fan listening to her best-selling album Loud will have racked up nine plays. (Cuter classical labels break up the first movement of Mahler 3 into smaller chunks, presumably with the Spotify model in mind).

Primephonic therefore base their royalties not on the number of track plays but on the total time played. It’s substantially more complex to implement, Steffens says, but the end result is a model that’s far fairer to artists. “Right now, there is less and less money available for talent development, to undertake artistically risky projects, etc. We believe in the longer term the whole classical music genre faces an existential risk as the revenue from conventional channels is gradually drying up and there is almost no revenue from the digital channel coming in. This is not something that happens overnight, it’s more like climate change: it takes 20 or 30 years, but at the end of the road, something terrible happens. And that’s what we felt about classical music. It’s missing out on the dominant revenue channel, and every year, it gets a bit worse. And there are dramatic consequences: we already hear from labels that some artists are starting to focus on recording shorter works.”

Steffens believes that across the world, there are about 20 – 30 million people who listen to classical music seriously and every day, which makes a good sized pool out of which to draw enough members to make Primephonic viable. Classical artists and industry figures will be hoping that it achieves that and more – if all goes well, it could be the vehicle that gets recorded classical music back onto the commercial rails.


This interview was sponsored by Primephonic