Apple Music Classical Is a Ton of Fun

Apple Music Classical Is a Ton of Fun

Photographs: Getty Images, Everett Collection; Collage: Gabe Conte
It’s an exciting moment for classical music, and Apple’s new dedicated music streaming app is the perfect way to experience it.

It might just be because I am getting old, but suddenly it seems like classical music is newly cool. Tár, Todd Field’s caustic portrait of a celebrity conductor, was the most critically consequential movie of last year. The New York Philharmonic just announced the splashy hire of superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel and opened a blingy renovation of its concert hall (thanks to $100 million from the music mogul David Geffen). This summer, Bradley Cooper is following up A Star is Born by directing and starring in Maestro, a biopic of the towering conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. And today, Apple released an app dedicated exclusively to streaming the stuff, Apple Music Classical.

I have no formal background or training in classical music, but I feel like I am close to Apple’s ideal consumer for the new app—simply an enthusiastic listener. It happened slowly: I went to an opera on a whim. My uncle got me symphony tickets for Christmas. I started to enjoy going to concerts where everyone wasn’t watching through their damn phone. (Like I said, I’m getting old.) Before I knew it I was rubbing shoulders with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy at a Carnegie Hall celebration of Steve Reich and sitting through five hours of Wagner on a weeknight.

Most importantly for Apple, I have been endlessly frustrated with how the big streaming platforms (Spotify, in my case) handle classical music. And after playing around with it for a day, I am ready to issue a snap judgment: Assuming you don’t already have a Lydia Tár-scale collection of rare Decca LPs, Apple Music Classical is the best way to immediately listen and learn.

The app, a free add-on to a normal Apple Music subscription, is based on a classical-only streaming service called Primephonic, which Apple purchased in 2021. It has been remade at the high level we have come to expect from Cupertino: The app launched with playlists from some of the biggest names in classical, a thoughtful nine-part introductory podcast, and innovative and high-fidelity audio encoding. The home page reflects current energy rather than fusty eat-your vegetables NPR didacticism: There are plenty of dead white dudes, but a quick scroll brings up Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the charismatic music director of the Metropolitan Opera, and Caroline Shaw, Pulitzer-prize winning composer and Kanye West collaborator. The promotional materials included a screenshot of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, surely a sly reference to Tár.

But for all the polish and energy, the success of the app hinges on solving a boring, technical problem: metadata. Pop music relies on just a few variables to identify a piece of music: artist, album, song. In the classical world, more pieces of data matter, like the composer, the conductor, the performer, or the dates of composition, recording, and release. Individual pieces might have a nickname, like the “Moonlight Sonata” or “Coffee Cantata.” A composer may have given a work a specific designation—the “opus” number—or scholars might maintain a catalog of known compositions, like Bach’s BWV numbers. A usable classical streaming service needs to figure out how to display all of that information, and make it searchable.

If you’ve ever tried to find a particular classical piece, you already know what I’m talking about, but here’s exactly what I mean. Consider hunting for “Voi che sapete,” a famous aria from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro.

If you search that on Spotify, it will return the right piece of music, but you get an undifferentiated mass of unreadable results. Who is singing? Who is conducting? When was it recorded?

Compare that to the same search in Apple Music Classical.

Apple Music Classical 

The app both recognizes the opera you’re looking for and suggests some tracks of the specific aria that display relevant information. It’s not perfect: ideally there would be a way to specify that Herbert von Karajan is the conductor in that fourth result, for instance. And I’d love to figure out how Joan Sutherland got the top result—this piece is not exactly in her vocal strike zone. But it’s a night and day difference between the two services.

If you are now thinking I am unlikely to need to search for a specific Mozart aria, I get it. Apple Music Classical is a proudly niche app. But while it’s probably never going to be a gigantic moneymaker, the business case is straightforward: As the growth of its hardware business slows, Apple has increasingly come to rely on the recurring revenue from services. (What do you sell once everyone who wants an iPhone has one?)

Apple Music is a big part of that service picture, and it is locked in a fierce battle with Spotify (and, to a lesser extent, Tidal, Google, and Amazon) over the streaming market. But because the music offerings of each platform are largely interchangeable, the apps are all looking for any way to differentiate themselves. The release of Apple Music Classical is not so different from Spotify buying the Joe Rogan Experience—just with live recordings of the Vienna Philharmonic instead of bong-rip thoughts about vaccines and trans people. From that standpoint, classical music might convince some music fans to make the switch to Apple.

It’s a good demographic. As primephonic CTO Henrique Boregio told Mixpanel before the acquisition, “Most of our users are age 55 plus and are highly educated and relatively well off. We joke in the office that we don’t know whether you start liking classical music and then you become wealthy, or if it’s the other way around.” These are the people you want to switch to your streaming music service.

But I am personally not sure if this will work, because the costs of switching streaming services are extremely high. I love the new app so far, but hate the idea of quitting Spotify. It’s not the core experience, exactly—it’s re-pairing my Sonos system and missing out on the year end Spotify wrap, or losing the playlists that played at my wedding. And while I love Apple Music Classical so far, I can’t imagine paying for two services.

A bigger issue is whether it makes sense to wall off classical music in its own app at all. As the new app’s introductory podcast points out, classical music is just music. Given that, what sense does it make for Jonny Greenwood’s solo compositions and movie soundtracks to be on there, but for the only Radiohead tracks to be corny string quartet covers? Why, for that matter, is this more thoughtful approach to metadata reserved for one type of music? I can now pull up Vivaldi’s catalog of compositions—so why can’t I easily get to Ezra Koenig’s songwriting credits or Metro Boomin’s production discography?

Apple has said it is going to use the lessons of the classical app to improve the core Apple Music product, and that would truly be the best result. As they’re currently set up, all of the major streaming platforms encourage passive listening—hitting shuffle on whatever low-fi hip hop beats that fit your current mood. This is bad for music, and bad for music fans. Apple Music Classical shows there’s a better way.

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