In the world of computer systems that I used to work in, there are two general approaches to building and maintaining computer systems that are sometimes distinguished as the “Pets or Cattle” approach. That is, do you build each of your computers individually and with tailored care, naming each one with nice, human-friendly names …or do you build them according to a template, naming them with robot-like names whose specifics are neither relevant nor particularly human friendly?
For example: all the computers in my house are called things like MAHLER, BRITTEN, RVW, JSB and so on: each one, a composer’s name or abbreviated set of initials. Each is uniquely built, tended and cared for. It’s definitely ‘pet world' here!
I mention this in the context of this blog because one can take a similar approach to music. Some people see it as a resource to be consumed (or treated like cattle -pick your metaphor!), others as something requiring careful nurturing and maintenance, like a favourite pet.
For example, if you visit www.spotify.com, you can sign up for a free subscription which thereafter gives you access to Spotify’s very, very extensive collection of music. I think it fair to say that it is mostly aimed at the non-classical music listener, but there are millions of pieces of classical music available too. For example, I’d venture to suggest that Marin Marais isn’t the most well-known composer, even to people who listen to classical music quite a lot, but Spotify has a very extensive library of his music:
(And that’s just a sample -and remember all of that can be listened to for free!) So, streaming music from Spotify means, on the plus side:
- A huge collection of music to choose from
- All available for free
- Stored off-site and managed by someone else
A hassle-free approach to listening to digital music, then: what’s not to like? Well, on the negative side of the equation:
- You don’t own the music and it’s not stored at home, so no working Intenet connection means no music
- The free subscription means your music will occasionally be interrupted with adverts
- Someone else’s choice of metadata might not be what you’d choose
Of those, you might think the first item is the biggest potential problem: Internet connections do fail from time to time. It would be a shame if that meant you were cut off from your ability to listen to music if that happened (though the radio remains available, I guess!)
But actually, I think the biggest problem is probably the third of those points. If you keep records of what you listen to (or use a web service to keep a record of what you listen to, such as you can do with an account at Last.fm), then recording which pieces you listened to by which composers accurately is rather important -and recording them accurately is a key thing that needs to happen.
Unfortunately, most music streaming services get their metadata wildly wrong when it comes to classical music ...and Spotify is no exception.
Look at what Last.fm thinks I just listened to here, for example:
Who is this fellow called “Georg Friedrich Händel”?! Well, it’s the name Spotify uses to refer to the composer of Messiah, where I’d say “George Frideric Handel” (and so would the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, so I’m right and Spotify is wrong!!) But since you don’t own the music, you don’t get to put the metadata right, either!
As another example:
You may well not be familiar with German (I’m not exactly fluent myself), But If I Suddenly Started Capitalizing Every Word I Wrote In English, You Might Get A Sense Of How Stupid The Capitalization In This Case of the first part of Bach’s BWV 140 Cantata is to your average German speaker! It seems to be one of the cardinal sins of classical music metadata: people seem to throw in spare capital letters just for the hell of it, and it’s horrible (see the previous example, too: it’s not just German works this happens to. There’s nothing grammatical about ‘And He Shall Purify’ with four capital letters, either!)
But again: it’s Spotify’s metadata, no matter how rubbish it is, not yours, so you have to live with it.
Now, getting back to the contrast in approaches I mentioned at the start of this piece: if you treat your music merely as something to be consumed, the accuracy of the metadata (or its lack) won’t bother you, and the ready access you have to a bazillion tracks is a big plus. If you like to care for your music library as you do your pets, however, than whilst Spotify is certainly an excellent way to sample new music, the inability to curate it properly, on your terms not Spotify’s, is a big problem.
By way of another analogy: using Spotify as your source of music seems to me rather similar to listening to a lot of Classic FM radio. The music floats past you and you get a listening experience out of it, but you don’t really engage with it in quite the way you would have done if you’d had to get out of your seat and put on a CD -or if you’d had to rip that CD and ensure the resulting digital tracks were properly tagged with accurate metadata.
I certainly wouldn’t want Classic FM to cease its existence. I similarly think Spotify is an excellent resource when you want to listen to music before committing to buying it and so have no problem using Spotify at all. But if they were the only way I got to listen to classical music, I think there would be a problem -a problem of superficiality, of not paying real attention to the music I listen to, and of not having a sense of ‘buy-in’ to the music I care about.
In short, I treat my music like I treat my pets. It’s something to own, care about and curate with attention to detail.
And because of the nature of classical music, which tends (I think) to require a level of intellectual engagement that is perhaps lacking in other forms of music, I suspect that most classical music listeners should aim to be pet owners, not cattle farmers!
So: by all means use Classic FM (and Radio 3, of course!) as well as streaming services like Spotify to explore new music and get familiar with aspects of the classical music genre before you indulge in great expense. I think I’d definitely want to use Spotify to explore the works of Brian Ferneyhough, for example, before splashing out cash on any specific recordings of his works!
But if you actually want to know and understand classical music, as opposed to merely listening to it, then nothing, in my opinion, beats having a music collection of your own to care for.