Why Can’t Music Streaming Services Give Good Recommendations for Classical Music?

I regularly use Apple Music, and sometimes the recommendations I receive in the For You section are spot on. They learn from what I listen and what I love (though I don’t love tracks or albums very much), and they recommend music by the same or similar artists, or from similar genres. On any given day, I’d say a quarter of their picks are things that I really would like to listen to. And I think that a 250 batting average for this type of recommendation, which is all done by algorithm, is pretty good.

However, when they recommend classical music, they tend to strike out a lot more. Last night, I listened to an album of Schubert’s piano trios, and this morning, I see these recommendations:

Classical recommendations

It’s fair to say that I’d be potentially interested in listening to many if not most of these recommendations, but are they really “like Schubert: Piano Trios, Op. 99 & 100?” No, not really. There are two recordings of violin concertos, an opera, some vocal music (Monteverdi’s Vespers), and some solo piano music.

What would be “like” those Schubert piano trios? Perhaps other chamber works, such as piano trios by Haydn or Beethoven. Maybe some string quartets by Schubert, Beethoven, or other Romantic composers. Or some other music by Schubert: his piano music, lieder, etc.

It’s not clear why these recommendations were chosen. With pop, rock, or jazz, the recommendations tend to be based on the artists performing the music, whereas here, this isn’t the case. None of the three artists who performed the Schubert trios I listened to (Andreas Staier, Daniel Sepec, and Roel Dieltiens) are present in the recommendations. Two of the recommendations are on the same label, Harmonia Mundi, and, in classical music, that can a good reason to recommend music, as independent labels do have a specific character. But I scratch my head to try to figure out how these recommendations were chosen.

The Igor Levit set is in my iCloud Music Library, and I have listened to it before, but I don’t know any of the other recordings. The only commonality I find is that the Schubert I listened to was released in 2016, and five of the seven recommendations were released the same year, with two others in 2014 and 2015.

It isn’t easy to tailor recommendations for classical music, and I suspect that Apple Music is simply looking at what other people who have the Schubert recording in their libraries are listening to, or what’s in their libraries, similar to the way the Genius feature works. Providing better classical recommendations would require additional metadata for classical recordings, beyond just the “classical” genre. There would need to be metadata for eras (Baroque, Romantic, etc.), ensemble sizes (trios, quartets, orchestras, etc.), and styles.

The classical market is too small for the big streaming services to provide this sort of recommendation, and other players, such as Idagio and Primephonic, are entering the field in an attempt to do so. This is probably not something that can be done by algorithm, in part because of the absence of extended metadata specific to classical music.

To be fair, a bit of browsing on Apple Music allows me to find plenty of classical music, but I really would like the kind of recommendation that pushes me in the right direction, especially for composers that I don’t know well. I’m not that interested in paying for another streaming service, because that sort of fragmentation with music is just an annoyance. But I wish the big streaming services – Apple Music, Spotify, and Amazon – would take classical music seriously.

Apple Music Now Available from a Web Browser

Apple has launched a web version of Apple Music. Available in a beta version at beta.music.apple.com, this provides much of the Apple Music experience.

Apple music beta

It’s not hard for Apple to provide web access: Apple Music pages in iTunes are just HTML – or web pages – displayed in that app. The web version is more limited than iTunes. Not everything is available: you cannot create or delete playlists, you cannot view smart playlists that you have created in iTunes, and you cannot use Genius to get suggestions and to start Genius playlists. But you can play music, add music to your iCloud Music Library, love and dislike music, and more.

You can access For You, you can browse Apple Music, and you can use Apple Music Radio. There are four ways to view your library: Recently Added, Artists, Albums, and Songs.

The question is why is Apple doing this? I don’t think the goal is to provide a fully functional player, but rather to provide a way for people who don’t have Apple Music to follow a link they see on social media, or an artist websites, even if they are not on an Apple device. But if you do want to use Apple Music without iTunes, and your needs are limited, this is a good way to do so.

(A friend pointed out that Linux users are happy about this, since there is obviously no iTunes on Linux. As this is going to be the year of Linux on the desktop, this is a Very Good Thing.)

Apple Music’s Recommendation Algorithm Is Drunk

Apple Music’s For You recommendation algorithm can suggest some interesting music, but it seems to be stuck in a loop of confusion for me. Today, in the Fridays’ Albums section, two of the four quartets of albums are just wrong.

The first one is this:

Tindersticks

While the top two albums are indeed records I like a lot, and I do like David Byrne’s music, I HAVE NEVER LISTENED TO TINDERSTICKS. Apple Music is constantly showing me “Because you listen to Tindersticks” in this section. I had to look up the band; I’d never heard of them. I have never listened to them, unless, somehow, a song of theirs came up on an Apple Music radio station I played.

The problem is that they keep telling me I listen to this band but I don’t know anything about them, and now I don’t care. Is “Tindersticks” paying Apple Music to be featured this way? Has someone hacked my Apple Music account to play music by this band? Is it a typo for Teruhisa Fukuda, whose latest album I have listened to a number of times? I make a Recently Played playing in my iTunes library going back 5 years, and THERE IS NOT ONE SONG BY TINDERSTICKS.

Okay, that’s the first. But the second today is this:

Canned heat

I know Canned Heat, I’ve heard their music. I remember ???? “I’m going to the country, la-de-da-de-da-de-la-la.” It was in the Woodstock movie, right? I may even have owned that album when I was a teenager. But, like Tindersticks, I HAVE NEVER LISTENED TO CANNED HEAT ON APPLE MUSIC. I checked my Recently Played playlist. Again, it’s possible that one song came up in an Apple Music radio station, because tracks you hear there don’t show up as recently played. And, to be honest, none of the four artists in this quartet are bands I particularly care for.

This is really annoying, like all those recommended albums that I dislike but still get more recommendations for the same artists. This makes me wonder if Apple Music is possessed. Possessed by evil spirits who like Tindersticks and Canned Heat.

Is Jazz Dead (on Apple Music at Least)?

I like jazz, but I’ve never been someone to really get into the genre, to know all the musicians, to keep up with the new releases. There are a dozen or so artists I like, and now that I use a streaming service – Apple Music – I often check out the new releases to see what’s happening.

I think it’s fair to say that jazz as a genre is fairly stagnant, with little real innovation, and a lot of repetition. Nevertheless, even within the norms of the genre, there is a fair amount of good music released.

I went to Apple Music this morning to find some new jazz to listen to. Previously, the top carrousel of the jazz section was filled with new albums. Today, there’s nothing but playlists. Below the carrousel, more playlists. To find new releases, you need to scroll down, and what is there is quite limited.

Is jazz dead

At just over 1% market share in album consumption, jazz is little more than a footnote in the music industry. But with about the same market share as classical music, it still has its listeners, and lots of performers. I’m sure that in big cities there’s a vibrant club scene for jazz musicians. However, not much in jazz has changed, and for the non-aficionados it can seem like a stagnant genre.

It’s telling that the top album on Apple Music is Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, a landmark of jazz, but also the jazz album that people who don’t like jazz listen to. It’s followed by Kenny G (smooth jazz has its own special circle of hell), and the top 20 includes records from 50 or more years ago by Stan Getz, Chet Baker, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong. (And more smooth jazz; sigh.) In fact, if you look at all the classics in the top 200 on Apple Music, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the standard jazz canon is. (Monk, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, Nina Simon, lots of Miles Davis, Mingus, etc.)

Maybe Apple has given up on promoting jazz albums as they used to, realizing that most jazz listening on their service is done by casual, non fans, who are more than happy with playlists of anonymous (to them) musicians playing a genre that is rooted in a nostalgic past.

Apple Music Top Charts Now Available

Apple Music has added a Top Charts section to its Browse tab. In it, you’ll find charts by country, and one for the entire world. These charts show the 100 most popular songs.

Top chart

The charts are global; Apple hasn’t broken out charts by genre, so what you’ll see in the charts is pop and hip-hop. As such, nearly all the 100 tracks in the US top chart are “explicit” versions of songs. Though if you go to iTunes > Preferences > Parental Controls, and check Restrict music with explicit content, these charts will show the “clean” versions of the songs. And if there is none, then the songs that are only available in “explicit” versions will be dimmed and unavailable for listening, but will still display in the charts.

In addition to the country charts, there are sections with the top songs, playlists, and albums for the entire world (at least those countries where Apple Music is present). You can check these, or your country chart, to see what you should be listening to.

Because that’s really the point of these charts; they show you the music do you need to hear to avoid FOMO, and reinforce the primacy of the music at the top of the charts by excluding the rest.

New on Apple Music: Friends Mix

Friends mix

Apple has started rolling out a new feature in Apple Music For You called Friends Mix. As its name suggests, it is a playlist of music that your friends have listened to. Of course, to use this, you have to have friends on Apple Music; this process isn’t simple, and I bet most Apple Music users don’t know that it exists. I assume that if you have no friends, that is you’re not following anyone, then you won’t see this playlist.

The Friends Mix refreshes every Monday.

Update: now, a few hours after I wrote this article, the Friends Mix no longer shows up for me in For You. No idea why.

Some Deception with the iTunes Store and Apple Music

I’d written many times about how the iTunes Store and Apple Music were separated by a brick wall, making it hard to go from one to the other when looking at a specific artist or album. It seems that Apple has changed this recently, and now, when you find an album in the iTunes Store, you can hop to Apple Music to listen to it by clicking Listen Now.

It’s interesting that Apple is willing to cannibalize sales in exchange for streams – and I wonder if the record labels are cool with this – but at least now, when you click or tap a link to the iTunes Store, and you really just want to stream an album, you don’t have to manually search for that album.

But not all music sold in the iTunes Store is available on Apple Music; there are labels and artists that will not stream their music. Here’s one example:

Finley

None of Hyperion Records’ music is on Apple Music, but iTunes suggests that you can listen to it by clicking the Listen Now button. Since the music is not available for streaming, you get a dialogue telling you that the music is not available in your country, not that it’s not available to stream anywhere.

If you are not logged into Apple Music, the behavior is slightly different. If you were to start a free trial after viewing this album, you would get to Apple Music, then find out that the album in question is not available to stream, in spite of the Listen Now button suggesting that this is possible.

So, Apple isn’t being honest; I’m shocked, shocked! What’s more worrisome, however, is the fact that they’re sending people to stream music instead of buying it, most likely against what record companies want, and they’re saying that music is available for streaming when that is not the case. To be fair, the percentage of tracks that are on the iTunes Store and not on Apple Music is quite low, but still; Apple knows who they are, and shouldn’t display this dialog.

Play Apple Music on the Web

Apple has rolled out a nifty function web player for Apple Music. If you go to the Apple Music Tools website, you can search for and play music by song, album, or playlist. This site is designed as a marketing tool; it allows record labels or artists to create an embeddable web player for their music. By default, it plays 30-second previews, but if a user signs in, they can play full tracks.

Here’s an example:

Click Preview to hear short previews – limited to 30 seconds, not the 90-second previews you can hear on the iTunes Store – or click Sign In to be able to listen to the entire album.

While this is not a fully functional web player, it suggests that Apple may roll out a web interface for Apple Music in the future, extending the service’s reach to all platforms.

iOS Music App Now Shows Music Videos Section in Apple Music

IMG 7698 The iOS Music app now shows a Music Videos section when you browse Apple Music.

This shows featured videos at the top of the page, followed by New Music Videos, Music Video Playlists, then some sections by genre and one for the “Essential ’80s.” There are only three genres for now – hip-hop, pop, and rock – though that probably covers the majority of music videos available in the west. (Bollywood videos are certainly a big thing in India.)

This is another step toward Apple Music becoming more than just a music service, but expanding to what will eventually become a full range of video content. You can check one out here.

This section does not yet appear in iTunes on the desktop, but should show up soon.

Update: the Music Videos section now shows in iTunes as well.

Why Doesn’t Apple Music Let Users Search for Composers?

I know, classical music is a small share of the overall music market. But it’s still an important part of the overall music landscape, and if there are currently 36 million Apple Music subscribers, that means there are at least a couple of million people who listen to classical music.

Yet you cannot search for composers.

Composer search

You see some composers listed as “artists,” you see their names in the titles of albums (for a number of years, many if not most classical albums that feature music from a single composer have that composer’s name at the beginning of the title), you may see playlists with a composer’s music, you even see “songs,” but you cannot see all the music by a composer.

Granted, this could return a lot of results. Maybe not for Olivier Messiaen, as in the example above, but for a composer like Beethoven, Bach, or Brahms, there would be thousands of albums.

Yet if I search for Beethoven, and look at the album results – which only features albums that contain his name in the title – only 21 albums are shown; including With the Beatles, because it contains their cover of Roll Over Beethoven.

This lack of searchability borders on contempt. Apple Music wants you to be able to “discover” music, but they don’t give you the tools to search for anything. You can only really discover music in the For You section, or in playlists. And it’s not just for classical music; I’d like to have better search for jazz as well, looking for specific musicians.

Apple has the metadata; they just don’t let customers access it. Because they don’t care very much about music that isn’t pop and hip-hop. People at Apple have told me that there are employees who listen to classical music who work in and around iTunes and Apple Music, and this has lead to some improvements in the way classical music can be organized in an iTunes library, and to the way some composer names are displayed in the iTunes Store and in Apple Music. It wouldn’t be hard to introduce this type of search; in fact, they used to have a “Power Search,” that had fields like Composer, Director (for movies), Author (for books), and more. But they just don’t care.