Apple launched its new classical music streaming app this week, as anticipated since the company acquired Primephonic in 2021. Michael Tsai provides a good overview of the reaction, ranging from the expectations of classical music listeners to practical matters of interface design and software development.
I have some opinions of my own.
But first, let’s get our terminology straight: “Apple Music” is Apple’s subscription streaming service, “Music” (née iTunes, sometimes called “Music.app” for clarity) is the primary app (available on iOS, iPadOS, macOS, and even Windows), and “Apple Music Classical” is the newly released separate app. You may see the latter app described as “free”, but only paid Apple Music subscribers have access to its curated library of streaming content. Dan Moren notes another astonishing fact in Six Colors: Apple Music Classical is currently available for iPhone only, and not (yet?) fully integrated into the Mac/iPhone/iPad/TV/Watch/HomePod ecosystem.
Kirk McElhearn‘s 2015 MacWorld piece Listening to Classical Music on Apple Music was unsurprisingly been making the rounds again in the run-up to this week’s release of the new app. To drastically summarize McElhearn, existing streaming services are fine for genres with simple metadata (like most pop music), but stumble over anything with complex details. You can ask Siri or Alexa to play the latest Lizzo single, and maybe even a remix or live recording if you want to get fancy, but if you’re looking for the Overture from the 1959 recording of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, released on Warner Classics, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra and conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, then you’re going to find yourself in a difficult situation that rivals the title character’s predicament.
Music lovers who maintain local libraries of audio files have always been able to organize them well enough in Apple’s
iTunes (sorry, force of habit) Music app, given a little patient work. So-called jukebox apps are essentially databases for audio files, and have long supported extended ID3 metadata more common in classical, than say, rock or country: including Work Name, Movement, Title, Composer, Grouping, and so on. Today, you can already listen to Jack Antonoff songs performed by Beyoncé and Bach pieces performed by Glenn Gould. This is a solved problem.
I know this is going to sound hyperbolic, but as a lover of music in general, and a very amateur musician, I find the concept of separate apps for various genres almost offensive. I’ve been listening to digital music since Panic’s pioneering software Audion was released for the Mac in 1999. Over the years, I transitioned my library to Apple’s iTunes & iPod, and now to Music.app and iPhone. All this time, I’ve listened to classical alongside rock, pop, jazz, and so on. I’ve never had any problem organizing it all in one place, or finding anything, even with multiple recordings of one composer’s piece performed by different ensembles.
Listening to classical music on a Mac is completely fine, if a little clinical, as long as you don’t mind your collection resembling a spreadsheet:
Again, for those interested and willing to manage a music library themselves, it’s long been possible to tag classical music:
Things are less ideal, but passable on iOS. To begin with a positive example, below is how the Steve Reich album Radio Rewrite looks in Music.app on iOS. In the album view on the left, the Work name is displayed as a heading, the composer and performer are listed below that, and individual movements are playable tracks below that. In the now playing sheet on the right, the Work and Movement are combined into one line, with only the performer below. This is perhaps the bare minimum of support for extended metadata, but I think it’s fine.
The mobile Music.app interface does fail to do justice to an album like Yamanashi Blues by California Guitar Trio, which features contemporary arrangements of music that span multiple centuries and composers. When I thought of music ill-served by digital interfaces, this excellent album is the first that came to mind, due to its remarkable diversity. Even though all of these tracks are tagged in my library with their respective composers, the iPhone only displays the performer. I wish the interface exposed the composer metadata, but it doesn’t strike me as reason enough to design an entirely separate app.
But this is not how most people listen to music these days; streaming (usually on mobile devices) is the method of choice, and managing local libraries of audio files on hard drives has become a niche hobby for audiophiles — or if you will, obsessives (I raise both my hands from my Mac keyboard; it’s a fair cop). The UI/UX for nascent streaming services, including not only Apple Music but also Spotify and Tidal, are in a relatively young category of apps, and were were designed from the get-go for quick access to popular music in the literal sense: what appeals to the largest audiences. There’s also the matter of voice interfaces like Siri and Alexa, which are even less suited to searching within complex genres — and if used on home networking devices like the Echo or HomePod, have no screen to display any text or artwork at all.
Cellist, composer, and former Apple employee Jessie Char posted her thoughts on the matter in a Twitter thread. An important point she makes right away is that even if complex tracks are tagged with the correct metadata, the typical mobile interface doesn’t even have the physical screen real estate to display long text fields. But again, I contend that this is a solvable design deficiency, not cause for creating a walled garden, solely to accommodate one genre of music that typically has longer names than most others.
On the occasion of the Apple Music Classical app launch, McElhern has revisited the subject for Tidbits. One interesting note he makes is that there is as yet no one source of truth for classical music metadata, akin to how The Movie Database powers services like Letterboxd. Even the venerable Gracenote isn’t reliable when it comes to classical music. So what Primephonic and Apple have done here goes beyond designing a new interface to better search & display complexly tagged audio files, and had a twofold challenge: build an updated database and curate a searchable and browsable experience. McElhern notes that while Apple overhauled of its own library of music on the backend, this updated database apparently only powers the new Classical app, and apparently does not apply to music for sale in the Apple iTunes Music Store or streaming via the flagship Music app.
So, given all of these factors, and after going to all those lengths, why did Apple opt to create an entirely separate app to showcase its revised music catalogue and curated classical selection, as opposed to correcting the deficiencies of their existing product? I fail to understand what is unique about the broad category of classical music that would require an entirely different app/service than all the existing ones for, you know, music. The cynic in me wonders if pop music composers, producers, and performers don’t want to draw attention to the composer metadata. Not to pick on Beyoncé, but I can imagine she might object to every appearance of “Single Ladies” on her fans’ phones to be accompanied by the text “Christopher Stewart, Terius Nash, Thaddis Harrell, and B. Knowles”.
Imagine if Apple’s iCloud Photos service was split into two apps: Apple Photos Pets, specifically tailored for all your fur baby pics and nothing else, and Apple Photos for pictures of everything including pets. If the hypothetical of an app just for cat photos sounds like a solution in search of a problem, is it not it also absurd to posit an app just for classical music? If Apple’s existing music service (comprised of its backend database and accompanying apps) is deficient, then the responsible product design team needs to go back to the drawing board, not fork it into separate products.
Further, who are the editorial gatekeepers that decide what is “classical” and what isn’t, and what goes inside or outside of the quarantine bubble? Would Philip Glass’ opera Einstein on the Beach be available in the Classical app, but you’d have to launch the boring old Music app whenever you’re in the mood for his pop album Songs From Liquid Days? What about the California Guitar Trio album Yamanashi Blues, shown in screenshots above, that includes an arrangement of Bach’s “Chromatic Fugue in D Minor” from the 18th Century, alongside a cover of Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” from 1959, as well as their own original contemporary pieces like “Blockhead”?
If Apple were to improve metadata support for the existing Apple Music streaming service, the benefits would extend well beyond classical music. For example, Beatles obsessives would surely appreciate quick access to the 2009 remaster of the 1970 mix of “Get Back” from Let it Be, not to be confused with the 2021 Giles Martin remix, the 1969 rooftop performance from Anthology 3 (released in 1996), the 2003 Naked version, or the 2009 remaster of the 1969 Single Version from Past Masters (released in 1988).
If you are sitting in your favorite chair, reading The New Yorker, and turn the page from an essay on politics to a poem, cartoon, or short story, would you stand up, walk across the room, and sit down in a different chair? Of course not. So why would you launch different apps to listen to different genres of music?
There is no one genre of music that I like so much that I would exclude all others. What next, Apple Music Disco? Apple Music Slow Jams For the Ladies?