When approaching Primephonic (website), one of the few high-res (24-bit/192kHz) streaming services devoted to classical music, I was interested to see if they could go beyond the existential questions of survival that tend to dominate any discussion of the genre. Working a fundraiser at a classical radio station, I was once told by a listener making a donation that she also gave to endangered species protection funds. This well-intended listener revealed that the questions of survival are pervasive and exist at every level of the classical ecosystem from the local symphony and radio station, to agencies and record labels.
As I logged into Primephonic for the first time, I was hoping that this angst would lead to genuine creativity in the streaming platform rather than just be a streaming platform without all that pesky stuff known as other genres of music. I was also hoping that it would advance the conversation in classical music, moving from the yes/no question of “will we survive?” to the broader question of “how will we survive?,” and maybe to provide part of the answer. After listening for several months now and seeing continuous updates to the platform, I feel like Primephonic is taking major steps in this direction. It’s not all the way there yet, but the experience of listening to music on Primephonic is enjoyable, educational, and in many ways, unique.
Words and Images by Nan Pincus
Primephonic was created in 2017 around elements of classical music’s existentialism. Part of its stated purpose is to make a streaming service that can rectify the underrepresented share of streaming that classical music currently occupies… before it is (audible gasp) too late. Currently, only about 1% of streamed music is classical and it is projected that by 2030, 70% of all music revenue and consumption will come from streaming platforms.
Now, let’s start with that first statistic. Not exactly shocking is it? The classical audience isn’t widely considered early adopters to much of anything. We’re often interested in what was more than what it is. I’m rather guilty of that myself. There are some fantastic conductors doing amazing things right now, but for every one hour I might watch a livestream of Daniel Bamberg conducting Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, I’ll spend four reading pianist Byron Jani’s encounters with Chopin’s ghost. While it’s been quite a while since being part of a 1% was a good thing, perhaps being streaming skeptics is an aspect of the classical community that audiophiles are sympathetic to. After all, haven’t we all heard the statement of pride of “I don’t want WiFi in my HiFi.”
Furthermore, pre-Primephonic streaming has been built for genres of music that don’t have the same categorizations, sonic ranges, or intertextuality as classical music. As Primephonic is quick to remind you, metadata, and search optimization on traditional streaming platforms is hardly suited to the easy discovery of classical music. “Artist, Track, and Album” just doesn’t cut it for classical. Spotify can easily discourage those looking for performances by a particular conductor when they were with a certain orchestra. I think Primephonic is right on time as a service and, with its recent update, providing innovative ways of listening to and learning about classical music. As that second statistic portrays, streaming is a crucial part of music industry’s present and future.
To expand classical’s piece of the streaming pie, Primephonic has taken its major cues not from other streaming services but from a physical institution of learning, exploration, and pleasure: the library. A good library is organized in a way that allows you to easily find what you are looking for, but then, with kindness and without pushing, encourages browsing and discovery.
(A good record store does this as well, but because the streaming platform operates on a monthly subscription model, it takes away the “do I want to buy this?” individual decision series that accompanies any type of shopping regardless of a low-pressure setting. Record stores, I love you. Just saying the library experience is different and a better model for streaming service aspiration).
How many times do you go into a library with a certain book or document in mind only to walk out with a different book that you have encountered while browsing? A good library makes you want to come back to it constantly because the quality of material and knowledge to be gained seems endless. Sometimes this attraction is to simply the endless wandering and wondering through tiered displays. Other times, when time is of the essence, the hunt for material is feverish with FOMO.
Luckily, since Primephonic is not solely a library but has the accessibility of a streaming service, the browsing is much more the former than the latter and personalized to boot. Other streaming services have taken their shots at this curatorial approach, but anyone who has listened to more than a couple songs on Pandora or who has been disgusted with an autoplay feature, knows that algorithms typically tell you what you’re going to skip next more often than what you’re going to listen to. As elaborated below, Primephonic is a welcomed departure from this approach whose curation is thoughtful, personal, human, and unforced, and allows you to come upon recommendations at your own pace and leisure.
Getting Your Primephonic Library Card
First things first. You should absolutely try this out this service for yourself—although the subscription is $15 a month, the two-week free trial requires no credit card or prepayment. It is long enough to get a sense of Primephonic’s offerings while not requiring anything…not even a download (there is currently no desktop app, more on that later). The tailored and curated approach to the Primephonic database begins when you log in. Though you can skip them, four questions are prompted when first creating your account that tailor the selection you are presented throughout your usage of the service.
They inquire as to your familiarity with classical music, what kind of classical music you enjoy, and what composers you like. Given my skepticism for auto-recommendations, and my first-hand knowledge that collecting consumer data is generally more for the collector than the collected, I mostly took this as some nice Pantone boxes to consider. But data collection has its place (like death and taxes) so I completed the answers honestly. And my home page and its evolving recommendation from The Essentials of Satie to Biber: Requiem have been satisfying enough, but really it’s not the quality of the auto-recommendations that are going to make this review largely glowing, it’s the human playlists.
With this brief survey completed, I was directed to their “essentials” playlists. Here was a list of compilations, the topics of which could satisfy anyone. From Avant-Garde to Art Song to Chamber Music, these are seventeen playlists that Primephonic is using to introduce you to the service, and to distill a thousand years of musical history. The first thing I noticed upon scanning the topics was the commitment to the contemporary. A full third of the playlists’ themes were devoted to the 20th century and beyond, while typical themes like sacred music, are not included here. I went ahead and jumped into the Essential Romanticism list, visually characterized by a portion of the Caspar David Friedrich painting familiar to anyone who has read the Dover thrift edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Each list is about five hours long, but there has been an obvious effort to each to not privilege any certain composer or work over another. The pieces in Romanticism Essentials are considerately manageable in length (the longest being the Adagio of Bruckner’s 8th that clocks in just under 25 minutes, the shortest a charming ditty by Schumann at 28 seconds). Most of the works are between three and ten minutes, and full symphonies are discarded in favor of certain movements.
Some of the selections are instantly recognizable, such as the obligatory Ride of the Valkyries, while others by Suk or Clara Schumann are welcome additions to the canonical list. The performers and recordings are similarly diffuse and include the Ashkenazy’s and Pavarotti’s alongside deserved performers like Masako Ohta. Permeating throughout the entire list is a feeling of care; each piece flows beautifully into the next while the feel each performance does the same. As I listen the list feels both familiar and exploratory, relaxed and obsessive. The work of finding a particular recording or piece is gently removed from the user who now only must lean back and enjoy the recording in 24bit FLAC.
The Primephonic Librarians
So, who are those who have taken such care to curate this experience for we lucky listeners? The company is based in Amsterdam, but was created through conversations between three savvy, classical music lovers from New York, Singapore, and the Netherlands. Just looking then at the staff list, the international influence is obvious; it is diverse, and contains staff members from a variety of backgrounds and species.
Each playlist is created by a Primephonic staff member whose name and picture are shown alongside each list. Though there are no biographies for these individuals within the Primephonic web pages, their presence alone reinforces the human touch that is felt through each of the playlists. Some are longtime classical music employees who have worked at symphonies around the world, others are conductors, and many of them are musicians themselves. Its refreshing to see a staff drawn from around the world who are devoted to the knowledge that they propagate.
There are a few drawbacks, if you will permit the continuance of the metaphor, to the “card catalog” system. While the UI of the Primephonic is clean and contemporary on both Android and iPhone apps and their web-player, there is no desktop app that can be downloaded. I was worried initially that this would hamper the sound if I could only listen through the web-app, but thus far, there have been few skips and no decline in quality of sound.
It has been a slight annoyance listening at home, I’m often auto-logged out rather fast and it feels like my librarian has forgotten her glasses. “Barbara, I was just here.” But I could imagine it being a more serious inconvenience if I travel with my computer, and without the desktop app don’t have an option to download an album in advance. If I only wanted to listen through my phone at an MP3 level quality (part of the $10 a month subscription plan) their current model would be alright. But the best way to listen to this music is on their premium level subscription (at $15 per month) which allows you access to the entire catalogue at FLAC/24bit quality. If I am traveling sans WiFi but craving Shostakovich, there is not currently an option to do so with Primephonic.
There is some chatter on some forums about possible Roon integration, but this doesn’t seem to be likely. Hopefully, as the service continues to update, there will be a custom app built for desktop users.
Losing Yourself in the Stacks
I like wandering through the musical archive at Primephonic. The playlists are a great and obvious place to start. Beyond their essentials, there are lists for every occasion and are being added to weekly. From any of these collections you can jump to individual recordings, composers, conductors, orchestras, or soloists. Then on these individual pages, though elegantly and simply presented, there are ample opportunities to learn.
For instance, from the “Female Conductors” playlist I jumped to a recording of the Kremerata Baltica Orchestra conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s second symphony (say that three times fast). On this page was a short biography of the composer written by one of the museum staff members. It reminded me of the kind of summary one would see in a printed program if you attended the symphony in person. This is nothing new but is on par with the excellent artist bios I often read during Roon listening sessions.
However, what is new is the option to download as a PDF the liner notes to many of the albums in the library. As a liner notes fanatic, particularly for classical, this is a huge treat allowing me to contextualize my album listening and better imagine myself into the world of live concert recordings. It is more like getting the chance to sit down with a CD from Linn Records and peruse the liner notes during early movements before settling back and into the recording.
The difference between the two listening experiences, of course, is that with Primephonic, you can keep browsing! As I dove deeper and deeper into their library, I drifted further away from their playlists and began enjoying the diversity of music available as albums.
When Primephonic was launched, one of the many problems was a lack of tracks available. Though there were about one hundred thousand tracks available, it felt like every time I wanted to listen to something specific, that particular recording (or conductor, or soloist) was not yet a part of their database. Thankfully, with last years update, Primephonic has increased their library thirtyfold, now offering over a 3.5 million tracks to stream. That I often still come up with a recording I want to hear that they don’t have (most recently, Otto Klemperer conducting Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Annie Fischer and the Philarmonia Orchestra), does not undermine Primephonic’s library but rather just speaks to the incredible depth of classical recording history.
Along with including liner notes, they have also added other layers of features that are exciting additions to a streaming service. The radio option allows you to create a radio station based on instrumentation, era, composer, ambiance, or any combination thereof. Some of these combinations are naturally impossible (for instance, there is no station featuring trumpet music from the middle ages because there were no trumpets in the middle ages), but it is a fun feature that allows experimentation and a different way to discover some music that you may not otherwise come across.
Primephonic is also making excellent educational additions to the streaming model. There is an impressive selection of classical music podcasts and interviews that can be easily accessed to introduce listeners to the modern performers, composers, and conductors. For an additional fee, there’s also a ten-week audio course on classical music called Ludwig that introduces you to the genre. I admit that to me, this offering recalled the Great Courses offerings that, along with sunflower seeds and gummy worms, I ate up on road trips as a child. But I enjoyed them then and maybe I’d enjoy Ludwig now. Most importantly is that Primephonic is experimenting with the streaming library to ensure that long-time listeners have engaging content to explore while introducing new listeners to what the genre is all about.
This gets to the heart of the concept of the library. I was guided in a direction when coming into the space, but quickly found that my own interests could guide browsing. Then down every route I went, I found information that was interesting and dovetailed to my own interests. I genuinely look forward to jumping back on Primephonic each day, which is saying something for a radio-obsessive.
Supporting the Artist
While we talk about the excellent content available on Primephonic as well as the effectiveness of their concept, I have to mention another way that they are leading a beneficial change in streaming platforms. Classical musicians have long been at a disadvantage when it comes to being paid by other streaming services. Spotify, Apple Music, and the mainstream lot pay an artist for every time their song is played.
This is all well and good for the pop music world, whose digestible tracks clock in under five minutes. But it takes much more capital for a classical label to produce a track that is over an hour long. Under the standard model, the three-minute pop hit gets the same payout as a recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. Primephonic is taking this in a different direction, touting the “fair payout model” for their remunerative system. Instead of paying per track, they are paying the artist for each second that their music is listened to. The longer a work is streamed the more money the artist of that work is paid. It’s seems to me to be a far better way of encouraging artists (both classical and otherwise) to experiment with longer works and not be obligated to compromise their work to the commercial system erected over the past twenty years by mainstream streaming services.
Check it out
“Let your library be justified” – Borges, The Library of Babel
I strongly recommend Primephonic to the classical-loving and classical-curious alike. For those dipping a toe, there are a number of educational tools embedded in natural usage that help you become better acquainted with the genre. For those of us who have been listening to classical music for a longer time, Primephonic constantly reminds us of the richness and diversity of the genre.
The human curation of this streaming service ensures that the works you hear constantly push the boundaries of the classical canon outwards to embrace new composers, conductors, and musicians. It is telling that in the months I have listened to the service, not once has Ode to Joy or O Fortuna or Handel’s Messiah been auto-generated. These pieces are in the library many times over to listen to, but the curators at Primephonic realize that classical music has so much more to offer than that.
Making this realization through its music, its quality, its support of artists, and its educational efforts, the Primephonic service demonstrates its commitment to helping classical music survive in the modern world. Through these efforts Primephonic goes beyond the questions of classical music’s survival and demonstrates that this diverse idiom can thrive in new, digital spaces. They have shown that a classical library can be an innovative and pleasurable one, and I’m going to stay tuned to see how they continue to expand their offerings, foster community, and curate incredible experiences with music.