So here I am, someone who — in phases — has over the years bought a lot of classical music. However, I have never really got into buying the music in the form of digital downloads. Much of the classical back catalogue can be acquired cheaply as second-hand CDs (and there’s fun to be had, searching the charity shops). While the small difference in price between buying a new release as a physical CD and as a digital download is usually balanced by (for me, given our various players) the convenience of the CD — and anyway, it is good to have something of value to pass on to Oxfam if I decide that the recording isn’t one I want to keep.
But storage space has increasingly become an issue. So now, in the nick of time, along comes Apple Music. This looks very tempting. For the price of one mid-range CD a month, here’s the prospect of renting access to much of the vast iTunes library. (Yes, yes, of course I know that there were streaming services before! But old dogs, new tricks, etc. )
So today I’ve updated the software on various bits of Apple kit and signed up for the three months free trial. How does it look on Day One, at least for a classical music listener? For to be frank, the set-up is surely not designed with us much in mind (indeed Apple sometimes don’t really seem to give a fig about us — or else ages ago iTunes would have had the trivial tweak that would tell us that CDs which are assigned the genre “classical” comprise tracks rather than always, idiotically, songs).
- The first and crucial question is: what is available to stream via Apple Music? Obviously a huge back catalogue, and many new releases. But there are also significant gaps. For example, you can’t get three of the last six of Gramophone’s ‘Recordings of the Month’ (Rachel Podger’s wonderful L’Estro Armonico, Andras Schiff’s revealing Schubert played on a fortepiano, and Alina Ibragimova’s new Ysaye Sonatas). And from today’s Gramophone list of ten outstanding Schubert recordings, you can’t currently stream four. Hyperion seems to be one of the labels that has not yet signed up to Apple Music. Which explains not only Ibragimova’s absence, but also some of the other absences and the fact that you also can’t stream two of my other favourite recent buys, Marc-André Hamelin’s Mozart Piano Sonatas and his Janecek/Schumann disc. And looking back, you can’t yet stream e.g. any of the Hyperion Schubert Edition lieder discs. Now, these are in fact all available on iTunes to buy as digital downloads: so maybe one day … But of course, existing gaps in what you could already purchase on iTunes also carry over to become gaps in what you can stream — so e.g. the coverage of historical recordings can be rather patchy.
- What is the user interface like? For basic search-and-play, on any OS X or iOS platform at least, things work pretty well, particularly if you already know what you are looking for. One trouble (as The Daughter pointed out) is that Apple and others didn’t push for the standardization of metadata for classical recordings a million years ago. Presumably the record companies thought that it wasn’t going to be an issue, ‘cos we were all going to be reading CD booklets till the end of time. This means that searching has been a bit of a pain on iTunes and continues to be so now on Apple Music. However, once you’ve found what you want, the information about tracks can be hopelessly inadequate. Here’s an extreme example. There’s a rather splendid L’Oiseau-Lyre 50(!) CD box called The Baroque Era full of interesting stuff. And heavens, you can stream the lot from Apple Music. Great. So here are the 480 tracks nicely listed, with none of them assigned to their respective composers (even if you control-click to Get Info). Apple have no doubt just used (some of?) the metadata as provided by Decca. But is no one at either end doing any quality control on this sort of thing? Another sign, perhaps, that Apple doesn’t care about the classical listener quite enough to insist that everyone gets their act together.
- You might want to ignore the “For You” menu. Otherwise, you have to be prepared to spend time actively rejecting the initially stupid recommendations (even if you’ve told Apple Music that classical music is your thing), in the hope that Apple’s algorithm learns better ! [Added: Though, I can report after a few days, that the algorithm does learn quickly, and is now serving up some sensible and indeed interesting suggestions — so it is seems worth persevering rejecting some suggestions, ‘liking’ others.] Annoyingly, there seems to be e.g. no way of creating a snappy playlist of album titles (as opposed to an unwieldy list of separate tracks — imagine what that can come to with an opera!).
- And the listening experience? A minor but irritating glitch (or am I missing something?) is that you can’t adjust the gap between tracks in streaming an album. So, depending on whether tracks have silence at the end, movements of a sonata, say, can follow on each other with without the needed gap. I suppose you could stream one track at a time to avoid this, but this is a (surely avoidable) annoyance.
- Sound quality? No complaints at all. No doubt my ears are too old to catch the finest nuances, and so I wouldn’t be able tell the difference anyway between Apple’s encoding and the high quality streaming that is available more expensively from specialist providers. But I guess for most of us, listening on only moderately decent kit, in an averagely auditorily cluttered environment, Apple Music is more than fine.
Not perfect then. But hey, there is a lifetime’s listening of extraordinary recordings old and new available to stream, and a lot of obscure byways to explore, reasonably easy to find if you know what to look for — and I guess other labels will sign up if Apple Music takes off as you would expect. I’ve already spotted, oh, a dozen recent CDs I had it mind to buy which I can now stream. So at least modified rapture.
And rapture at less than $10/£10 a month seems a bargain to me.