The Big City

”The more susbtantial an individual’s aesthetic experience is, the sounder his taste, the sharper his moral focus, the freer—though not necessarily the happier—he is.."

That’s Not All There Is

A few years ago, I wrote a review of the major streaming services, and concluded that Apple Music was the best based on the strength of it’s “radio” algorithm, the tool they use to take a song or artist you select and dig up more music you might like. Spotify’s algorithm produced bland and repetitive results, while Apple brought up a lot of interesting music that made aesthetic sense and was still surprising.

A lot has changed since then. One of the services, Rdio, vanished, though Tidal keeps chugging along, which is inexplicable to me (more on that to follow). Amazon Music Unlimited and YouTube Music are now a major service. The other significant change has been the rise of classical music streaming services—primarily Idagio and Primephonic—meant to appeal to classical music listeners in no small part because they promise far more productive and accurate search. How well do those do, and how does everyone else stack up against Apple Music?

Spotify is the new first choice

Once again, it all comes down to the algorithm. For general music streaming, each service has the same catalogue of music (there are other factors, like podcasts and playlists the services program, but those are non-essentials), although there are some exceptions I’ll get to below. If I know what I want and can play it, there’s no differentiation. But if I don’t know what I want, or I want to find out what I don’t know—vital to me as a music critic—I want the service to take my starting point and send me in the right direction.

Spotify now does that better than Apple Music. I don’t know what they have done to change their algorithm in the past few years, of if Apple has changed theirs, but Spotify now produces far more interesting results.

Their results are better than Tidal and Amazon as well. This is not to say Spotify is objectively the best, but for the criteria of finding music new to the curious listener, it is the best. The general strengths of the others are:

  • Apple integrates iTunes purchases and iTunes Match (if you use it), into one library, which is high on convenience.
  • Amazon has some music that isn’t available anywhere else, like Sonny Clark’s 1960 Time Sessions, which Spotify doesn’t have at all, and complete Thomas Dolby albums, where Spotify only has a couple of tracks off of each.
  • YouTube Music has videos.

Tidal…well, Tidal advertises HiFi Streaming for an extra $10/month ($19.99 total). This, as far as I can determine, is a complete fraud. Streaming the same music from Spotify Premium and Tidal HiFi over the same audio systems (M-Audio studio monitors and through a Marantz amp into Klipsch bookcase speakers) shows the audio quality from both services is exactly the same. How does Tidal still exist?

Another also-ran I want to cover is YouTube Music. I tried it for a few months, and at the start I was ready to make it my first choice—it promised much.

After setting up my account, YouTube Music asked me to select a bunch of my favorite artists. The choices they had were broad and deep, and picking something like Bob Marley meant opening up a small menu of other Reggae musician to choose from, so you could refine your taste for dancehall or dub. I chose around 100 artists across all the genres they offered.

After that, YouTube Music gives you the choice to have them play music randomly based on what you told them you liked. Just what I was looking for, I thought. But whatever algorithm they use is execrable. Like Spotify, you tell YouTube if you like or dislike a track they are playing, so I liked Tom Waits and Joe Henry, because I like them (they were among the artists I chose), and I didn’t like the occasional French pop-disco tune they brought up…and why did they bring them up , because I like Edith Piaf? After less than a dozen tracks, my random playlist turned into a playlist of randomly selected Joe Henry songs, and nothing else. And for this they charge you more.

This was such an utter failure that it is beyond my imagination that Google could make YouTube Music so bad. Aren’t they supposed to be the masters of the algorithm? I don’t have any behind the scenes look into their thinking, but it strikes me that they are breaking songs into component parts, a la Pandora, and using those parts to categorize music. Which has nothing to do with the listening experience, the way harmony and rhythm and tempo and the timbre of the instruments come together into a whole. This is the problem, as Ted Gioia has pointed out, of thinking of music in terms of science, you loose all the magic and mystery, all the music and humanity.

Classical streaming: not quite there

Idagio is a streaming service that launched last year designed for classical music listeners (I am only covering Idagio here, as Primephonic has nothing notable that sets it apart from Idagio, and I had more time spend with the latter than the former). As a classical music listener myself, I was interested to see what made Idagio different.

Database design on streaming services is the bane of classical music lovers. Searching for an artist name or album title is simple, vis-a-vis commercial music. But classical includes the vital additional component of the composer’s name, and if it’s an orchestra there’s a conductor, and maybe a soloist. Then there is the problems with tracks—Spotify and the like see every discrete track as a “song,” and so if you search for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral,” Spotify returns albums and also songs, individual movements of the whole.

Idagio does this better, with results laid out with the composer, a first choice to listen to, then different ways to get at various records and related music, all just one page past the first screen.

Idagio also has exclusive content not on Spotify, live music from major festivals like Verbier, Stockhausen’s aus LICHT performed by the Dutch National Opera, and the Busoni International Piano Competition. This is meaningful content for the aficionado. If classical music is your thing, and you have little interest in other genres, Idagio is the clear choice. If you love classical music along with other things, are pretty hard core, and have the money, Idagio is also an excellent supplement. But if you only want/need/can afford one streaming service, Spotify is still the choice. While you won’t get the exclusive concerts, you will get the same main catalogue. And along with their algorithm, Spotify has improvised their classical music search functionality.

And in ome strange ways, Spotify is also better for classical music. Here’s some key differences:

  • Idagio does not, as of this writing, have Ending(s), the new and superb set of music by composer Daniel Lentz on New World Records. Spotify has it.
  • Even stranger, and a real surprise, is that the Berlin Philharmoniker’s 2015 collection of the Sibelius Symphonies 1-7, on the orchestra’s own label, is nowhere to be found on Idagio. This despite the service featuring it in one of their email blasts, and prominently displaying other recordings the Philharmoniker has produced in the last decade. Again, this album is on Spotify.
  • Idagio does NOT have the album of Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten, a kind of WTF thing.
  • There are more choices for John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano on Spotify than there are on Idagio.

These may not be make or break issues for you. But a service dedicated to classical music should by default have a deeper catalogue than Spotify. That Spotify actually has more classical music releases is just another reason they are, currently, the best streaming service.

“I ate your book.”

Bernhard Lang

“I dig the jacket!”

Kurt Elling
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