Christopher Chelpka

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Tower Records and Apple Music

When I was growing up in Phoenix, I used to buy classical music CDs from the Tower Records on 40th Street and Thomas. Inside the store, there was a special room just for classical music. The walls and door were made of soundproof glass so that as soon as the door closed you could only hear the clacking of CD cases as you looked through the shelves, and maybe the sound of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello or Christopher Parkening’s guitar playing through the speakers. But perhaps the best part was that in that room you could find anything you wanted. You could find new things too. This was because the collection was huge and because it was organized by humans who knew what they were doing.

While each store was unique, Tower Records had a reputation for devoting special attention to the way it sold classical music. In San Francisco, there was a classical annex across the street from its main building. In New York, the Tower Records at Lincoln Center was a hot spot for buying classical records and meeting the artists who made them. Somehow, Tower Records realized that classical music had to be treated differently from the rest of their catalog.

Perhaps they saw how information-rich classical recordings are. One album might have multiple composers, arrangers, soloists, orchestras, and maybe even conductors. There may be multiple works, each broken into parts, and spread over a few CDs in a set. Add to this the liner notes, which were often as good or better than any well-researched encyclopedia or journal article you might read.

All this information makes the experience of listening more enjoyable and opens up new listening possibilities. But it also makes cataloging and database management a pain. And, sadly, since Tower Records closed, I’ve rarely seen the information management side of classical music done well, in brick-and-mortar stores or on the new streaming services.

Our streaming services don’t know how to deal with the thousands of pieces called “Adagio”, or how to treat a movement not like a symphony. They often don’t even display full titles. And there are other problems.

Mitchel Broussard, for example, points out how Apple Music

  • treats classical music too narrowly as a genre,
  • mishandles and strips the rich information that accompanies classical music recordings,
  • breaks up tracks,
  • and more.

But happily, this can be fixed. As Broussard points out, there are many practical steps Apple Music can take. For example, they can “build better composer pages and offer more categories”. He also suggests, hiring human curators and companies that know what they’re doing. Perhaps, there are some Tower Records people hanging around somewhere?

After I moved away from home, music became easily available over the internet; first, through illegitimate services like Napster and Limewire, then later through paid subscriptions like Spotify and Apple Music. These changes improved our access to classical music. And that’s great. But somehow, with the exception perhaps of NPR deejays, no one seems to know how to deliver that music in an organized way.

For an executive at Apple Music looking to make their mark, this project is being served on a silver platter. Let’s hope someone is listening.