By Richard S. Ginell
DIGITAL REVIEW — Having sent the compact disc into a tailspin in the previous decade, Apple is now trying to do the same thing to downloads. The company that gave you the iPod, iTunes, and the ubiquitous iPhone entered the fast-growing streaming business June 30 with Apple Music, joining a number of outfits that are presenting the all-you-can-hear subscription model as the present and future of recorded music.
So far, the response to Apple’s rollout has been mixed. The blogosphere has been burning with reports of clunky interfaces, deletions of existing songs in listeners’ libraries, or drains on battery life. But given the world’s highest-valued company’s mountain of cash and built-in audience, it’s going to make an impact. (And it already has: as of October, four months after the launch, Apple Music has 15 million users, according to the company, 6.5 million of whom now have paid subscriptions.) What concerns me, for the purpose of this article, is how Apple Music works for a classical listener.
We’ve been through the trials of iTunes, whose song-oriented method of organizing files can be all wrong for certain species of classical music. Ask someone who once spent an entire afternoon trying to get a download of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 to play in the correct order. It had been scrambled randomly into 24 separate “songs,” and putting it back together was like doing a Latin-German jigsaw puzzle. Moreover, names of artists are filed under their first names, so in order to find Ashkenazy, you have to look under “V” for “Vladimir” or “P” for “Pierre” [Boulez] and so forth. A Dudamel recording…, well, that should be easy to find in “G” since the world knows him as Gustavo, but wait: it’s just as likely to be randomly filed under one of several orchestra names or the composer’s name. It’s annoying for someone who likes to find things in some kind of intuitive order.
Hoping that Apple had learned something since the rollout of iTunes, I took Apple Music for a test drive, using an iPhone 6 to make the connection. They make it tempting in the beginning: the first three months are free, after which you are billed $9.99 a month. My browsing sessions in this vast selection of material indicate that there are some things here that are not available on CD, LP, or even other streaming sources. Most of the time, when I hunted for a particular recording, it was there, though there were several instances when the search came up empty. The displays are colorful, with full cover art, and the controls have fast-forward and reverse capability along with the usual universal symbols.
When you first sign in, some bouncing red bubbles appear on the screen and you are supposed to touch which genres (classical, jazz, rock, etc.) you “like” once, and those you “love” twice. The bubbles get larger when you do. (For those you “dislike,” keep your finger on the bubbles, and they vanish.) You then press “Next” and more bubbles fill the screen, containing a handful of artists and composers whom you are also supposed to like, love, or dislike. How they whittled down centuries of music to where Leonard Bernstein, Yo-Yo Ma, John Adams, J.S. Bach, Mahler, the London Symphony, Max Richter, The Piano Guys, and only a few others are your choices is beyond me.
So you tap your favorites, press “Done” and then “For You,” and the algorithms choose a bunch of things THEY think will interest you. The first time I tried this, one of the albums they selected was something completely unexpected, a Deutsche Grammophon release called Original Masters – The Singles. This is a hodgepodge of obscure classical recordings, mostly from the 1950s, that were originally issued in Europe on 45 RPM singles. It’s also currently unavailable except as a download.
Now how did Apple know that I would be interested in this? I do not own the album, never wrote about it, and none of my preferences among the bubbles, nor my iTunes library, indicated any affinity for the material on this album. The only time I ever encountered the album was seeing it once at Amoeba Music in Hollywood a few years ago, looking at it, thinking this might be worth hearing, then putting it back on the shelf. Could there have been a hidden camera in the record store reporting back to Apple? That’s the only way that they could have possibly known, I think. Spooky.
Then I must have accidentally hit some button or another, for Original Masters – The Singles suddenly turned up in my Apple Music library, along with the other tracks I had purchased from iTunes over the years. So I gave it a listen, plugging my iPhone 6 into a home stereo system. The whole playlist of 45 tracks appeared on the small screen along with a postage-stamp-sized display of the cover art. If you press “Play” for the first track, “Boogie Woogie Etude,” the artist, pianist Shura Cherkassky, may be found in a tiny crawl display, along with the title of the selection, near the bottom of the screen.
But the identity of the composer was nowhere in sight. (It took some searching through the Internet to determine that the composer of “Boogie Woogie Etude” was Morton Gould.) If the name of the composer is not in the album title, you’re out of luck. If you look up Yo-Yo Ma and select a compilation, The Essential Yo-Yo Ma, you get a list of selections but no composers. If you know what BWV means, you can be sure the selection is by J.S. Bach, but you’re on your own most of the time. That’s a major defect for a classical music listener. By contrast, the Naxos Music Library — which is geared for the classical listener — diligently provided all composers’ names and even individual personnel on the tracks of The Essential Yo-Yo Ma.
Next, I thought it would be useful to see how the streaming sound from Apple Music compares with that of the equivalent CD and the sound from the Naxos Music Library in a situation resembling the real world at home. I used a very good home system for comparisons — an NAD receiver, NAD CD player, and KEF reference speakers. I wouldn’t dare call it state-of-the-art, but it’s no slouch, either. And it is closer to what those who still use components would have on hand than, say, a megabucks, tube-driven behemoth.
I found a couple of recordings I could use to compare all three formats using the same edition that was released on CD. One was a recent issue, Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the first and fourth movements of Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 1 (Sony Classical), taken from a concert at the end of 2012. The other was Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in “Putnam’s Camp” from Ives’ Three Places in New England, from 1999 (RCA Victor). Both are zesty 20th-century pieces with wide dynamic ranges. Ominously, the first movement of the Lutosławski frequently sputtered and came to a halt on Apple Music, but I didn’t encounter that problem on the other tracks.
As far as I could hear, there was scarcely any difference between the Naxos Music Library and Apple Music in sound quality, but when compared to the CDs, you could definitely hear the difference. There was more “air” around the instruments in the Lutosławski, more of a sense of being in Walt Disney Concert Hall. The CD clarified the complex things happening within the aural crunches of the Ives much better than the streaming services, which tended to homogenize the instruments. In both pieces, I could hear a more pronounced difference in volume between the loud and soft sections on the CD than from Apple or Naxos. Granted, the differences between the CD and the stream were not huge, but they are there for those who can hear them, and more relevantly, for those who care.
The battery drain problem on a Smartphone does seem to be an issue with Apple Music. Over one 24-hour period when I was using it sporadically during daylight hours, it used up 36% of the battery’s capacity, more than any other app. But the next time I checked after not using the app for an hour, it went down to 27%.
After playing with Apple Music off and on for a number of weeks, I’ve found that it has its useful functions — being able to hear new releases and unfamiliar material at will and having access to a relatively wide variety of music in places where you can’t take your record collection with you. In one session of non-classical binge hunting, I tried finding a list of selections I could remember being played on the radio when I was first discovering jazz as a kid. Apple Music had them all, and they were instantly lodged in my phone’s music library.
Ultimately, though, Apple Music works for me as a supplement to my collection of recordings, not a replacement. I would miss the tactile pleasure of taking a disc out of its jewel box or an LP out of its sleeve and placing it in the CD drawer or on the turntable. Plus, I would miss the physical media’s advantages in sound quality and documentation and the sheer thrill of the hunt in record shops, flea markets, and other haunts.
What concerns me is that in the future, we may not have a choice. Streaming, with its lack of physical product to manufacture and stock, and the shockingly microscopic royalty rates for the artists, sounds like a most tempting profit center — and with sales in all other formats falling (except for the gallant LP), the music and tech industries might decide to concentrate on streaming alone.
Yes, having a world of music just a touch screen away is an attractive convenience (which brings to mind Jello Biafra’s ironic album title, Give me convenience or give me death!). But don’t take away everything that came before it!
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.