In recent months, the quality of content that Apple highlights in the classical music section of the iTunes Store has taken a serious plunge. It now looks like what I guess Wal-Mart’s classical music section does (if they have one). I’ve been increasingly surprised by this, and today I decided to take a closer look.
Looking at the top-selling classical albums on iTunes, you see a number of cheap, “best of” albums: Bach: 100 Supreme Classical Masterpieces; 100 Must-Have Classical Songs A-Z; The 50 Darkest Pieces of Classical Music; 100 Piano Classics; and so on. These are cheap sets, licensed from different classical labels, some featuring top-notch performers (the Bach set seems to contain only tracks from Bis, a Swedish label, with excellent performers), and others featuring unknowns (the 100 Must-Have Classical Songs has what seem to be mostly eastern European performers that I’ve never heard of). 12 of the 20 best-selling albums today are this type of compilation. Another best-seller is Invincible, by Two Steps from Hell, a compilation of movie trailer soundtracks. And there’s something called “Rock Symphonies,” which is anything but classical.
Looking beyond the top 20, there’s an album by George Winter (new age), some Andrea Bocelli (Italian pop songs), a recording by Ludovici Einaudi (ambient/new age), and a number of other non-classical recordings. Once you get past the first 25, you get “real” classical music, but there are also plenty more of those best-of albums.
But it goes beyond the best-sellers. Look at the first five “New and Notable” recordings:
And the first five “Recent Releases”:
And “Major Releases”:
The majority of the albums that the iTunes Store is highlighting are, quite simply, crap.
You can go further in the Recent Releases and Major Releases by clicking See All. For the former, I get a total of 64 albums, few of which are truly recent (released, say, in the past month). Some date back to early 2010, and others are even older. If I wanted to see what new recordings are available, there’s no way for me to do so. As for the Major Releases, clicking See All takes me to a list of 56 albums, about half of which are crap, and some as old as October 2009.
Then there’s the bricks in the center of the page. There are three “Essential” bricks, one for orchestral music, one for solo piano music, and a third for opera. Each one leads to a mere ten albums, seemingly chosen at random. They’re generally good performances, but what makes them “essential?” There are hundreds of albums that could be highlighted in those sections if there were some true editorial work done for classical music.
Now, I follow classical music, and I even review some classical CDs, so I’m pretty much aware that there are a large number of excellent albums released in the past few months. In the iTunes Store, however, I don’t see any of these. Okay, they do highlight a few “real” classical albums in the rotating graphics at the top of the page: there’s one by Hélène Grimaud, a performance of John Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur, and a new Hilary Hahn album. But not all of these recordings are recent: the Hilary Hahn album is from last September. Looking at this section of the iTunes Store, I get the feeling that there are no more than a half-dozen “good” classical recordings, that most of what they are selling is classical music for people who don’t listen to classical music.
Things have changed. In the early years of the iTunes Music Store, some unofficial figures were bandied about suggesting that some 10% of the store’s sales were classical. There used to be bricks (those clickable graphics in the center of the pages) leading to lists of new releases by some of the more interesting classical labels, such as Bis, Hyperion and Naxos. But now, all that is gone. Apple has clearly caved in to Wal-Mart style classical music sales.
This is a shame, because the iTunes Store is a good way for people to buy classical music from labels that may not have distribution in a lot of countries. Sure, you can still find the music, if you know what you’re searching for, but the interest of any kind of store is to discover music you didn’t know about. Over the past few months, I’ve found that I’ve been ignoring the iTunes Store for classical music, and going to web sites that specialize in classical music. Perhaps this is what Apple wants; to drive away the classical music fans, and focus on music that makes bucks more quickly.