Classical Music: Could There Be an App for That?

First of all, sorry for the hiatus!  Took a week off in early October to visit family and friends across New England, then upon returning it was time for WFIU’s pledge drive, which consumed many of my waking hours for eleven days.  I’ve been playing catch-up ever since, and am just now getting around to blogging again.  I have already blogged about the Coleman Insights survey data that was presented at PRPD 2014, and in that post I reflected on the way classical music stations market themselves.  Now I’d like to explore another presentation from the conference, and that deals directly with how classical stations deliver their content.

During the Classical Format session, one of the presentations was from Larry Rosin of Edison Research.  Mr. Rosin presented data about all forms of audio consumption (radio, streaming, own collections, etc.), and for the first time in his survey’s history, the results included data specifically about classical music.  The key takeaways from the survey, at least as they pertain to classical music, were:

  • 30% of respondents reported listening to at least one hour of classical in the last month
  • Of those who streamed classical music, there was a noticeable disparity (33% to 7%) between those who streamed Pandora versus those who streamed their local classical music station

Ben Mook of has a good write-up of the session, and I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting his article as a springboard for the rest of this post.  Ben writes:

Public radio stations should collaborate on an app for discovering classical music to take on services like Pandora, Rosin said. With the experience and expertise of those in the system, classical programmers should be able to create an app with greater appeal for classical fans than Pandora and Spotify, which Rosin said listeners use mainly because of a lack of alternatives.

“There is a bigger audience out there than you know,” Rosin said. “And the force of you all together is greater than the sum of your parts.”

Well then!  An app specifically geared to streaming classical music?  It’s certainly a bold proposal.  I had thought about it myself a little bit while I was unemployed (but then again, I also thought about becoming a pilot or a lawyer).  In addition to being a bold proposal, it’s also an incredibly daunting one – something I’ll get into a bit later.  But my first concern had to do with the size of our already small audience.  When the floor was opened for questions, I asked Mr. Rosin if there was a risk of cannibalizing our audience by essentially creating another competitor for ourselves, and I also voiced my concern about how we would connect streaming content on the app back to the terrestrial radio content in each station’s local market.  While Mr. Rosin admitted that the second part of my question was going to be a complicated puzzle to solve, he wasn’t concerned about cannibalizing audience.  He used the example of Apple, which revolutionized personal audio collections with its iPod.  Steve Jobs, concerned that another company would decide to put an mp3 player into its phones, decided to create the iPhone, even though Apple, until that point, had not been in the mobile phone business.  Jobs, according to Rosin, wasn’t concerned about stealing from his own market – rather, he wanted to be the market.

As much as I want to find an argument with his logic, I can’t.  My first rebuttal would have to do with economies of scale: the number of classical music listeners vs. the number of people in the market for a smartphone.  But with 30% of survey respondents having listened to classical music over a one month span, the potential audience for such an app is absolutely huge – which blunts that rebuttal significantly.  I’ve gone back and forth in my head about this issue at great length over the past two months, and I simply can’t find a reason to not, at the very least, pursue this idea seriously.

So – where on earth do we, as a classical radio community, go from here?  That is the daunting part.  There are, quite literally, hundreds of details, large and small, that would have to be worked out if such an app were to exist.  Here’s a partial list of what we would need to consider:

  • Who runs the ship?  One program director for the whole app?  Does the model of a program director even work for something like this?  How would the personnel behind this app be structured?
  • Who owns the music, assuming the app is a collaborative effort among public classical music stations?  Who pays for the streaming rights?  How do we centralize the music catalog?  Or standardize the catalog’s data?  In what new ways will we have to organize this massive music collection to optimize the app’s mission?  Oh, and just what is that mission?
  • File conversion: most digital music libraries used by classical music stations use low-loss, high quality file formats like .mp2 or .wav.  In WFIU’s case, when we load music into our MediaTouch software, the files are converted into a format only playable through MediaTouch.  Obviously, for streaming, we’d have to go with something smaller and universally playable.  So that will take a lot of work (or maybe not – perhaps a more computer-savvy person could come up with a simple solution).
  • Do we have hosted channels AND music-only channels with no talk?  Who hosts?  Will there be live content or will it be voice-tracked?  Live event streaming?
  • Can we create content that will appeal to those who know a lot about classical music and content that will appeal to newbies? How will we promote it?
  • The question I asked earlier: how will stations marry the content on the app with the content they create locally?
  • Last but not least: HOW IN GOD’S NAME DO WE PAY FOR IT???

I’m sure I will think of other concerns well after I complete this post, and I really encourage you to add your own thoughts in the comments section.

Can it be done?  I believe it can.  In all honesty, the only thing standing in the way is…ourselves.  We are all so busy trying to keep afloat with the day-to-day challenges at our own stations, so who has time to even begin to tackle something like this?  I, for one, think we should make exploring this idea a priority.  Who’s with me?

About Joe Goetz

Joe Goetz is Music Director for WFIU 103.7 FM in Bloomington, Indiana, and has eleven years of experience hosting and producing classical music programming for public radio. While completing his B.A. in Music at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, CO, Joe worked part time as a classical music host at KCME 88.7 FM. Following graduation, he worked as a classical music host and producer at Vermont Public Radio, developing new and engaging programming in addition to programming and hosting a daily afternoon air shift. He is an accomplished pianist with several chamber music performances to his credit, an occasional choir singer, and an avid golfer. He lives with his wife, Meghann, their son William, daughter Allison, and cats Ollie and Blanche.

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