Why Spotify Sucks for Classical Music

Spotify, just released as an invitation-only service in the US, has been around in Europe for a while. I wrote about it for Macworld back in 2009, and here on Kirkville in November 2010 (and just updated the latter).

I’d been thinking about subscribing to Spotify earlier this week, before they announced US availability, and I took the leap today and spent my first €5 to try it out for a month. I’d tried the free ad-infested version before, and I’ve had some gripes, as I wrote about before. But, even without ads, I realized that Spotify sucks for classical music.

One may claim that the Spotify model is not designed for classical music. Nevertheless, there is a lot of classical music available. So you’d think that the Spotify people might consider this group of listeners, and try and offer a service that they would like. Here are the main reasons why Spotify sucks for classical music (some of which apply to Spotify in general).

  1. No gapless playback. I hadn’t noticed this in my tests, in part because I chose to listen to works that didn’t require it, and in part because of the overly loud ads that came in every few minutes. While there are many classical works that you can listen to with gaps, you simply cannot listen to a large number of works – such as most operas, or anything that is composed with movements that have no breaks – without gapless playback.
  2. Search sucks. I’ve written about Spotify’s sucky search before. Andres Sehr of Spotify replied in the comments to that article, saying that:

    Rather then automate discovery we’ve worked hard on making music more social, ensuring that you can see and share all your playlists with friends (via our Facebook connection in particular) and discover new music socially through twitter, blogs, etc.

    Well, this really doesn’t work that well for classical music.

    Here’s an example of why search really sucks. In the screen shot below, you can see that I searched for Alfred Brendel. There’s an elipsis (…) at the end showing that there’s more. Yet the only way to see more is to click on the artist’s name.



    This works for a single artist, but if you want to search for something broader, say, “Schubert lieder,” you’ll have to look at the list that displays below. And that list is designed for searching for songs, not albums or works. Naturally, there are several albums entitled Schubert: Lieder, and they’re all mixed together, not even separated by artist. There’s not even an album view for searches, such as you see on the iTunes Store.

    Wait, there’s more. The search results list only shows you some of the results. You can scroll down, and some more will be added, but there seems to be a limit of a few hundred tracks. Search for “label:haenssler bach.” I happen to know that Haenssler’s complete Bach set is available on Spotify. But the results from the search suck. First, you don’t get much. Next, if you want to add more results, you scroll down, and only get 5 more tracks each time you scroll. Then, if you want to sort by, say, album, you won’t get any more results at all. (Searches sort by popularity, so you can’t easily see tracks on the same album grouped together. If you want to search by artist or album, clicking a column header stops the search, so you only see what’s been loaded before you clicked.)

    How hard can it be to make an advanced search window where users can search for different tags? How hard to make an interface which displays albums, if a user so desires? It seems that Spotify just isn’t interested in a clientele that wants to search for more than the latest hit.

    It’s worth noting that one Spotify user has created a search tool on their website that returns albums, and the Spotify Classical Playlists website published extensive playlists of large collections of classical music. Users can click on them and load them directly in the Spotify client.

  3. No list of new releases. Many classical music fans would like to see what’s new. I know I would.

    To be fair, looking through the latest issue of the British classical music magazine Gramophone, at its “Editor’s Choice” list, I did find about half the albums listed, but in most cases had to search for the composer and artist, rather than the album name, in order to find them. Nevertheless, this means that half of those albums are not available (or simply don’t come up in a search). And it seems that the major labels are better represented than the indies. I’m pretty sure that when I first tried out Spotify back in 2009 there were many discs from labels such as Bis and Harmonia Mundi. Now, there are only a handful from Bis, and just one from Harmonia Mundi. Hyperion Records is notably absent from Spotify as well.

  4. No liner notes. No information at all about the music. Nothing other than “song,” artist, album and time.
  5. View settings aren’t persistent. If I display or play an album, and I increase the width of the columns to better be able to read the name of the track, album or artist, then click on something else, when I come back, the column widths are not saved. Unfortunately, many classical works have long names, or have lists of artists that are more than about 20 characters.
  6. The interface itself sucks. As I wrote in my earlier post, it’s white text on a gray background, and as pixels on monitors get smaller, the font gets harder to read. I understand that Spotify is targeting a younger demographic, but those with poor eyesight will find it annoying to read on this ugly interface. Here’s what it looks like:

  7. No Composer column. You can see Artist, Album, Track and Time, but not composer. Since only some labels include the composer’s name in the Album or Track tag, if you’re looking at a playlist that someone else has created, you may simply not know who the music is by.

So there are many reasons why Spotify sucks for classical music. But the two deal-breakers are non-gapless playback and really, truly, honestly bad searching. I simply don’t buy the argument that it’s designed so you can discover new music via social networks. I want to be able to find what’s there, among their 15 million or so tracks. If Spotify, by not providing a good search tool, is saying that they don’t want my money, well, perhaps they won’t get it for long.

On the other hand, they’ve got a heck of a lot of Grateful Dead, including all 36 live Dick’s Picks recordings. A lot depends on your definition of the word “classical.”

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20 replies
  1. Ulysses says:

    Hi Kirk,

    Though I agree with most of your arguments here, I still think a more proper title should be: “Why Spotify Sucks for Classical Music Geeks”.

    Will you write an article on how sucky Youtube is for classical music in 2011? Maybe not even in 2006, right? Because it’s not designed for classical music.

    As a start-up Spotify is totally understandable that they focus mainly on pop/rock music fans, and sadly, more and more general music fans today consume music as tracks/playlists, but no albums (partly thanks to iTunes Store).

    So it’s a bit of a miracle that they even have such an extensive classical and jazz catalog there. How they make use of them is their choice, but for casual classical fans, who may rely heavily on Youtube before, Spotify could be a very useful tool for sampling and exploring music. At current status, Spotify, and indeed no other streaming service, can claim to be a perfect one-stop music consumption platform, but that doesn’t mean Spotify sucks for even the majority of classical music fans. So far I found Spotify the best freemium service of its type, definitely better than NML which streams at 64/128 kbps… Sometime I wish there will be a streaming service focused solely on classical music, with lossless quality, and indie labels like Hyperion on board. But as you said in the end of your article, how do you define classical? And by separating classical music with other good music, it will only become even more marginal. An indie rock fan who are curious about classical music, after seeing Amadeus, can now find all the pieces that Mozart ever wrote, in decent streaming quality for free, in no time (OK by simply searching Mozart he probably will land on albums like Mozart For Babies, but people can learn, let’s assume he will know how to search for Mozart Piano Concerto Richter in the future, if he keeps on digging), and he can even starts to make his Mozart playlist and show off to fellow indie fans, to me that is great for classical music as a cultural tradition.

    P.S. Spotify France do suffer from geographical restrictions the most: four Winterreise in France, dozens in the UK. It makes sense that they don’t show the albums that are not available in your country in search results.

    Reply
    • kirk says:

      Well, let’s be fair. If they have classical music, then they are hoping to attract classical music listeners. They have a lot of classical music, as you show on your blog with your playlists.

      I could have made similar comments about jazz. Search sucks. While it’s easier to find jazz recordings because of more limited artists, and fewer songs that are played by a lot of artists, many of the same issues still apply.

      Talking yesterday with some people from classical labels, some said that if they’re not on Spotify, it’s because they’re not interested in giving away their music for free, since it pays peanuts. Others made it clear that there will be classical labels giving up on Spotify for this reason. I’ve heard the same about many other, non-classical labels. Granted, since the majors have equity in Spotify now, they’ll keep their catalogs, and it’s not a bad deal to pay €5 a month to access DG, EMI, and other major labels.

      However, the biggest regarding classical music is simply that there is no gapless playback. This should be easy to accomplish, on computers at least, since the files are downloaded and pre-cached.

      Reply
      • Ulysses says:

        A lot have been written on Spotify’s profitability, but please don’t overlook some facts:

        Spotify had only 250K paying subscribers at the end of 2009, now over 1.6M (announced right after the US launch). Many accusations that are still floating around the net (the much quoted gaga get $100 for million play story) were made when they were making much less money than they do now. The US launch could easily double the subs number this year. If the labels (like Naxos and BIS) chose to join Spotify in 2009, I can’t see why they will leave now or in the near future.

        Spotify is already the top income resource for major labels in many European countries. Some said it’s because the majors all hold shares of Spotify, but I don’t understand how can they profit from shares of a private company without selling it.

        That being said, I do believe smaller labels, especially those specialized in classical and jazz, haven’t got their due from Spotify. See my previous post:

        http://www.spotifyclassical.com/2010/12/my-guesswork-on-whats-going-on-between.html

        Reply
        • kirk says:

          Well, a few points. First, I’m not sure how reliable those subscriber numbers are. I’d be surprised if they got that many subscribers so quickly. There are ways to fudge numbers.

          Second, Bis is a good example. Searching by _artist_ yesterday for a number of Bis artists (notably Ronald Brautigam, Miklos Spanyi and Maasaki Suzuki), I found that only a handful of these artists’ recordings are available. There are a lot of the Suzuki cantatas, some of Brautigam’s Haydn, but not of his Beethoven, and only some of Spanyi’s CPE Bach recordings. Brautigam’s Mozart solo piano works are fully absent.

          As for Naxos, same thing. There is a lot missing. I did search for ECM yesterday, and there’s no real way to see how many albums are available. Scrolling down to add 5 search results every time gets boring after a while, so I don’t know if their full catalog is there or not. To be honest, if I were a fan of ECM’s type of jazz (and I like a lot of it, but never bought a lot of their CDs), €5 a month just for their music would be a fair deal!

          Reply
  2. Ulysses says:

    What do you mean by “just one from Harmonia Mundi”? You searched for “label:harmonia-mundi” in Spotify and only one result? I can see hundreds of them, and I just saw a new US user, in Amazon’s classical forum, raved about the HM catalog he found on Spotify.

    If the French record labels are so desperate to ruin Spotify, I suggest you to change your account to UK and give it another try. Just use a UK proxy and login to Spotify.com and change country in your profile settings. And you can use the free version in France (or anywhere outside the UK) for 14 days. After that, if you like you can buy premium gift cards and redeem on Spotify.com, so you can keep on using the UK account “abroad”.

    Reply
    • kirk says:

      None that I know of. There seems to be little competition, and less desire to compete against something like that in Europe. None of those active in the US have seemed interested in the market.

      Reply
  3. kirk says:

    Ah, you see? That’s why the search sucks. I searched for “label:harmoni mundi”. I didn’t know that it needs a dash. Because there’s nothing to tell me how to search.

    Reply
    • Ulysses says:

      Nothing on the keyboard of my Macbook told me CMD+Shift+4 captures the screen either… but geeks think that’s why Apple are cool:P

      I hope Spotify makes the label names click-able and link to an album page sorted by release dates.

      Reply
  4. kirk says:

    It should be noted that Spotify dropped its prices recently. The previous time I had looked, I think it was €8 or 10 for the Unlimited version, and it’s down to €5 a month, which is part of what prompted me to try it out.

    I wonder, however, how sustainable these prices are considering what they have to pay the labels. If they do what Netflix just did in the US, they’ll have a vast hemmhorage of users, especially since, in the US at least, there are other streaming alternatives.

    Reply
    • Ulysses says:

      No, they introduced a new mode Unlimited, for €5 a month, Premium is still €10. The major difference is Unlimited cannot streaming on mobile devices or save playlists to offline mode.

      I hope a much more competitive market like the US will make Spotify face the problem you mentioned and fix them soon.

      Reply
      • kirk says:

        Ah, I didn’t realize that it was new.

        I’m sure that it’s sink-or-swim in the US, as there are several solidly-based competitors. There’s still a reticence about paying subscriptions, but at €5 a month for music on my computer, while I’m working, it’s next to nothing.

        To be fair, I have some 70,000 tracks in my iTunes library, so I don’t want for music. I’m more interested in being able to hear new recordings, or composers I don’t know, without shelling out for CDs or downloads. Radio where I live sucks, and streaming classical radios are few and aren’t that much better.

        Reply
        • Ulysses says:

          Hence my suggestion about the title on the post:) Most classical fans don’t own a thousand-CD library, and they may find that their time and effort spent on figuring out how to use Spotify for classical music, plus a $5 or 10 subscription fee, well worth it.

          Reply
          • kirk says:

            “Classical fans,” in my opinion, do have a lot of CDs. But that’s just the nature of the classical fans I’m in touch with. Or, if they don’t, they’re often interested in specific aspects of the repertoire. (I’m not talking about the casual listener who buys a handful of classical CDs because they’re well marketed.)

            But we can agree to disagree. :-)

            Reply
  5. pechmerle says:

    Streaming classical radios are few??

    I love BBC3 Classical. And Norwegian NRK Classical is also nice, if you don’t mind being unable to understand the title announcements. There are many, many others around Europe, and a few in the U.S.

    Reply
  6. pechmerle says:

    Just realized how awful Pandora is for classical music.

    I had created a lieder “station.” That worked out fine. I wanted primarily Schubert songs. Pandora gave me lots of those, as well as songs by Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Strauss, and others.

    But those are all single song tracks (if we don’t count cycles such as Winterreise). When I this evening attemtped to create a chamber music station, I learned to my horror that it will only play one movement from a particular piece, rather than a whole string quartet. So, useless for most classical listening.

    (Love my Pandora classical jazz station, though. Terrific to work to.)

    Reply
  7. michael says:

    While it’s true that Spotify is not particularly good for classical enthusiasts like us, but it’s a huge improvement over Rhapsody! At least Spotify works. I gave up Rhapsody after almost 10 years because of its unusable search functionality (not to mention that it insisted on showing me all the latest punk rock and rap – while even a novice programmer for Rhapsody could have detected that I’d rather have a root canal than listen to that stuff.

    Reply
  8. srikant says:

    SPOTIFY SEARCH SUCKS when it comes to Indian classical music as well Indian light music genre. worst SEARCH engine . all this play requires separate search O.S.ARUN, o.s.arun, O.S Arun, OS ARUN

    Reply

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