Classical Live on Google Play Music

In a major plus for the accessibility of classical music on the web, Google Play Music recently launched its Classical Live initiative. Through an exclusive contract with five major symphony orchestras—Boston Symphony Orchestra and new Music Director Andris Nelsons, The Cleveland Orchestra and Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, London Symphony Orchestra and Sir John Eliot Gardiner, New York Philharmonic and Music Director Alan Gilbert, and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and Music Director Mariss Jansons—the organizations will offer live recordings for download and streaming exclusively on Google Play for the first six months they are made public.

Though many of these recordings will later become available for download and streaming in full CD quality and hi-rez, and in physical form as CDs or SACDs, their initial appearance in 320kbps MP3 format on Google's Android platform will potentially expose an entirely new market to symphonic music.

The idea for the Classical Live Google Play Music partnership originated with artist manager Jeffrey Vanderveen at Opus 3, an artist management company. Vanderveen subsequently developed Classical Live with Jessica Lustig, Founding Partner and Managing Director of 21C Media Group, a publicity / advocacy / imaging / consulting organization. Both Opus 3 and 21C are heavyweight New York-based firms whose extensive clients bases are populated by some of the most important artists and arts organizations in the world today.

Lustig began work with Google in 2008, when she was the architect for the YouTube Symphony Project. The success of that project led Vanderveen to contact her.

"The purpose of the project is reach, accessibility, and availability," Lustig told Stereophile. "It's not really meant to stress audiophile quality. It's much more about coverage: who can access it and where. When we approached Google with our idea two years ago, Tidal with its full CD-quality downloads and streams didn't even exist."

The project, according to Lustig, has two primary goals. The first is to provide orchestras with requisite flexibility to put up recordings of live or otherwise captured performances quickly. Making downloads available soon after performances facilitates a dynamic interplay between orchestras and their worldwide fan base, and eliminates the long lag (and subsequent dying off of interest) between learning about a performance and hearing it live. Lustig points to the New York Philharmonic, which has used Google Play to make available January's "rave" performance of the Verdi Requiem, and to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which has posted their opening subscription weekend concert with their superb new Music Director, Andris Nelsons.

The other goal of the program is to grow audiences by reaching new converts who have access to Google Play through their Android devices, tablets, and phones. This is particularly important in non-iOS markets, where people may not have the money for Apple devices. "Part of the point of the program is to bring access to markets that are a bit underserved by some of the other platforms," says Lustig.

Via email, Ted Kartzman, Global Head, Independent Music Companies, Google Play Music, told Stereophile, "We're looking at this in two ways—introducing more classical music to people on Google Play Music, and introducing Google Play Music to classical music fans. Working with this caliber and group of orchestras is an honor for us, especially as they're looking to Google Play Music to try out new strategies, like bringing more live recordings [to the public] and making them available faster, to grow more fans in the digital music era."

Google Play Music, says Kartzman, has ensured that Classical Live music is easily accessible via browsing and search functions. Orchestral offerings are available through both Google Play's paid subscription service and recently launched ad-supported radio.

In response to the question on many audiophiles' minds, "Why has Google chosen lossy 320kbps MP3 rather than lossless or hi-rez quality?" Kartzman replied, "Google Play Music has always offered 320kpbs downloads and streaming across all of the platforms we support. We've optimized the service for the best performance on phones and tablets, and for the best streaming and offline quality across all of the 59 countries around the world where Google Play Music is available. We're improving the product and our infrastructure all the time. We'd love to be able to offer our fans their music in any quality they want, but there's nothing to talk about now."

Twenty-two complete works and three free bonus tracks constitute the first Classical Live release. These include inaugural digital-only releases from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and The Cleveland Orchestra, and newly available recordings from the London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The initiative's goal is to sign up additional orchestras, and to create a regular schedule of exclusive international releases for digital download and streaming on Google Play Music.

Release content is totally up to the orchestras. An organization can choose to issue complete concerts, or it can instead focus on specific works or even compile select movements from multiple compositions. The only requirement for participation in Classical Live is that Google Play has six-month exclusivity before the music can be offered on other platforms or in physical form. Hence, while the New York Philharmonic has eight fairly new digital-only releases available, only two are available on Google Play and unavailable elsewhere.

The Individual Orchestras Speak
To clarify each orchestra's present and future plans, Stereophile spoke with key representatives from three of them. David Bazen, head of digital media at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam pointed out that RCO has released edited live recordings on its own label since 2004, and has also offered downloads of the same material for some time.

"Our recordings start as hi-rez, and are released on multiple formats," he said. "What we do on our own label and release in SACD format we also deliver to multiple download sites in various resolutions. It's exactly the same production we issue on RCO Live, because we don't have the capacity to deliver recordings exclusively on one outlet."

RCO is currently finalizing its last recordings with Mariss Jansons, who is leaving as Chief Conductor. After they put out four or five with him in the coming season, they will begin issuing recordings from incoming Chief Conductor Danielle Gatti. A complete release schedule follows as a separate document.

Bazen estimates that half the orchestra's download sales are in hi-res format. Nonetheless, thanks to demand in Japan, physical sales are still bigger worldwide than digital. Korean sales are picking up quickly, but it's still a far smaller market than Japan. As for the issue of piracy in China, Bazen quipped, "I love to be pirated, because it shows that we put out something good that they all want to have."

Then he put RCO's Google Play deal into perspective. "For classical, it's important to be present on every platform in every kind of quality you can deliver, in order to create the biggest marketplace. Being active on Google Play is not a precursor to scaling down the resolution of our product; it's just a way to increase volume. Every country has a niche market for classical that makes it difficult to manage. But all these markets combined are still pretty big, and we need to be there as a recording symphony orchestra.

"Google Play reaches a completely different market than we've been reaching so far, because a lot of the traditional buyers of downloads are on iTunes. All the extra attention we can get is helpful. As for reaching new audiences, since we don't get customer data from either iTunes or Google, we don't know if we're attracting a younger audience."

Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, affirms that while his orchestra's Google Play releases are also edited, they strive to get as close to the live dimension as possible. The orchestra not only self-produces, but has also just signed a contract with DG that will feature the BSO's new Music Director, Andris Nelsons, conducting the label's first complete Shostakovich cycle. The Shostakovich recordings will be live, with a lot of post-production work. The first releases will include Symphonies 5–10, plus a few "filler pieces" such as Hamlet and Macbeth. Symphony 10 comes out July 31.

"Google Play will be more of a live experience, with less editing," he said. "But if a horn player cracks a note, that won't go in. The Android platform has over a billion users and seems to be exploding. Part of what's interesting is that androids are a little more popular where classical still seems to be in a growth mode in parts of the world that are still developing. There's pretty significant competition between Apple and Android, and Android's audience is a little more geographically dispersed and a little less affluent than Apple users. But Google is building a real presence through Google Play."

BSO's next digital release will probably be Mahler Symphony 6, which the orchestra just performed in Carnegie Hall. Given that they're taking the symphony to La Scala, Lucerne, and Salzburg, on a festival tour with the Proms, they hope to release the recording before they hit the road.

"I don't know if audiophiles will embrace it on Google Play, or if they'll wait six months to obtain it in a more advanced format," he acknowledged. "This is all new territory for us. We have no idea how much revenue it will generate. But there's not much production expense. There's an upside but very little downside, unless we release something that's god-awful and the critics cream us."

Vince Ford, Director of Digital Media at the New York Philharmonic, revealed that many of the orchestra's releases will continue to appear in digital format only. Tracks released in 320kbps MP3 on Google Play will appear in Mastered for iTunes format on iTunes. While NYP has issued recordings in hi-rez format on HDTracks in the past, future hi-rez releases have yet to be discussed.

"One of the things that's great about working with this orchestra is that there are very, very few edits," he said. "Quite often, there are zero, but it's usually one or two little tweaks. We also issue discrete projects in physical format with several labels, such as the latest Nielsen symphony releases on DaCapo. We have an incredibly long history with recordings, and they're an important part of our outreach strategy."

Kal Rubinson's picture

Sigh. Naxos' Classics OnLineHD already does 24/96 and Google can only manage 320kbps MP3.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I trust the article makes this abundantly clear, Kal, and also explains the rationale, whether we buy it or not. Unfortunately, Naxos' service will not offer anything on Google Play until six months after the initial release, and then only if the individual orchestras' recordings are distributed by Naxos. So for people who have to have it now, there is Google Play...

Kal Rubinson's picture

Certainly. My point was that Google's argument is about their market analysis because I cannot believe that their technical capability is less than Naxos'. If they do not offer better quality, how will they determine whether there is a demand for it?