In 2012, I left my job as COO of the Naxos group and started Proper Discord Ltd to help people to run their own labels. My first client was the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and we launched a label in October 2012. Four years later, King’s College is the UK’s best-selling new classical label*. I’ve delivered a balanced budget and trained an existing part-time employee to take on a new full-time role, running the college’s recording activities. As of this week, my job is done. I’ve worked on a lot of label launches over the past few years, but this has been the most interesting. Here are some things I learned:

1. You have to know why you’re doing it.

I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating that, unless you know why you are doing something, you will never be able to clearly determine if it was successful. It is easy for a room full of people to each have a different idea of what a project is and what it is for. A strategic planning document will help with this, but you cant measure every single decision against a strategic planning document. You need a guiding principle. Mine was “make us look good and don’t lose too much money” and became “keep up the good work but find a way for this to pay for itself”. An instruction short enough to tweet is an instruction short enough to remember.

2. “Label” doesn’t mean what it used to.

Against a background of declining sales and waning investment from EMI, the choir (and college) needed to understand how recordings fitted into their life. Once upon a time, that meant LPs and a bit of sync licensing. Today, it means promotional films, viral content, social media posts, free streams, free downloads, paid streams, paid downloads, CDs, SACDs, DVDs, Bluray, sync, terrestrial TV, digital TV, and everything in between. For King’s College, the plan involved a mixture of mass-market and premium products for the traditional SACD/CD/Download/Streaming market, as well as webcasts, free streaming and the occasional free download. The choir, which previously didn’t even have a Facebook account, now has a significant social media presence and a Youtube channel, makes weekly webcasts, records every chapel service, releases four albums a year and uses self-produced digital content in almost all its marketing activities. We even convinced the Chaplain to participate in a musical April Fool. All this required teamwork, much of which was coordinated with Intermusica, the choir’s agency, who were also instrumental in making sure recording and touring plans dovetailed neatly. The recordings plan originated with Intermusica before I started work on it, and its continued success owes much to their enthusiastic and imaginative input.

3. Be careful what you call it.

You want your name to be descriptive without being limiting. LSO Live is really clear branding, but what if they want to release a studio recording? Sometimes you need to create a new separate entity, like Berlin Phil Media, SFS Media or CSO Resound.

If you’re only making CDs it might make some sense to name your “label” something entirely new, like the Sixteen’s label, CORO, which has become a big brand in its own right. This was certainly the right move in 2001, when CORO started.

If the goal was to promote their choir, why did New College call their label Novum? If there’s no real prospect of a messy divorce (like Grange Park Opera’s departure from The Grange) then why have a name at all? In our case, recordings were to become integral to the choir’s core activities, and this was supposed to make the college look good, so we decided the college would be the brand.

We had to be careful with our branding. When your own-label artist’s name is so long it has a comma in it, you don’t want to print it twice on the cover. It’s almost OK that the LSO gets name-checked five times on the cover of this album. LSO is short. With plans involving other orchestras and lots of soloists, we decided to put the name of the choir on there once, make it big, and central to our branding.

We already has a logo for the college:


So we made one for the choir:


Most records use the new logo. If the choir isn’t on the album, we use the old one in exactly the same place.


This gave us room to expand in two directions: non-CD products from the choir, and non-choir products from the college. It even allows us to record solo projects with notable alumni. The only things it rules out are things we’d never want to do anyway.

4. A brand is more than just a name or a logo

From the outset we realised we would need consistent visual messaging. Looking back over the choir’s considerable recorded legacy, I noticed almost all the choir’s old albums used the same view of the college, taken from the backs:


We used this angle just once, to match an existing book. All the others reflect the fact that the choir can go inside the chapel any time it wants, and doesn’t have to pap the college from the other side of the river.

In an effort to avoid rapidly ageing artwork, we decided to only depict the men and boys of the choir on time-specific albums. For everything else, timelessness was the goal. I worked with Grace Hsiu (a friend and former Apple colleague) on the design for the logo and cover art. Grace did a great job of developing a template we could use in future, maintaining a consistent brand without having anything like her design skills. Grace designed the first two covers. I did the rest myself.

5. If you can make better records, make better records

Every album needs a reason to exist. If that reason is “because we wanted to make it” or “because the existing perfectly good recordings of this all belong to somebody else” then that’s fine for you, but they are not reasons for somebody to buy it.

Every time we recorded something, we set out to make the best recording of that repertoire anybody had ever made, and we set out to do it in a way we could readily explain.

Our Mozart Requiem includes the largest collection of alternative realisations available in a single package. Our Fauré Requiem is the first recording of a new reconstruction of the first liturgical performance. I tracked down surviving choristers from the premiere of Britten’s Saint Nicolas to ensure our seating arrangements were authentic.

Alison Balsom at King's.jpg

We commissioned program notes from leading academics, and had them translated by the college’s senior professors of French and German. One of our records had an optional 28-note trumpet solo. We got Alison Balsom to play it. If we could think of a way to make a record better, we did it**.

If your efforts to make better products are starting to seem a little absurd, it’s likely you’re getting a reputation for it.

6. It is hard to start as the little guy.

Conventional physical distribution is the wrong answer for almost everyone starting a label today. Between major retailers and international distribution, you could see as much as 70% of the purchase price of your product paid to other people, and this through a pipeline that takes a lot of work to set up and maintain. For this to be ok, you have to be selling way more CDs than you could possibly shift on your own.

King’s College sells a lot of CDs through its own shop, but it also has a large international diaspora of older fans who expect CDs, not digital products, so we had to find a solution.

Distribution for new labels is hard because there are lots of deals to set up, and you’re n a weak bargaining position. Instead of jumping through these hoops, we stepped around them and partnered with an existing label (LSO Live). The increased volume improves their bargaining power over time, we got to sign one contract instead of fifty, and we were able to start at the top end of the market. This doesn’t just help with the big things, like a good deal on physical distribution in the US. It also means you don’t have to do direct deals with specialists like the excellent Hyperion store.

hyperion store.png

7. You are your own worst competitor.

Unsurprisingly, the best-selling titles in the King’s College catalogue are the Christmas titles. These are products which, essentially, already exist on other labels. Orchestras often have this problem, but King’s College has it to a unique extent. Getting retailers to support the new recordings over old ones was always going to be a struggle, and it takes every trick in the book to make it work. A well-established distributor is great for this sort of thing.

It gets easier over time, because the new stuff crowds out the old stuff. It’s a challenge for a busy ensemble to build a catalogue quickly, but using live and archival recordings alongside new studio sessions gave us a chance to reach critical mass. Your strategy towards competitors may differ across different platforms and modes of consumption, so it may make sense to release (or promote) different subsets of catalogue on streaming and download platforms.

8. It takes two years to make a record and five years to build a label.

Smaller ensembles can be a little more spontaneous, but to really prepare for a recording and then finish it beautifully in time to promote it far ahead of launch, you need to plan two years in advance and allow twelve months between the recording date and release date. It is possible to do it faster. I’ve got it down to twenty minutes on some projects, but successfully releasing an old-school physical product takes time. At King’s College we released two albums in our first year, but this quickly increased to four a year. To start with it is very hard to project income for a new recording enterprise, but as the catalogue grows you get more signal and less noise. For the last three years we ended up with less than 5% variance from the projected P&L. A different label with a radically different business model might turn a profit on a shorter timescale, but five years is a sensible period in which to expect a successful label to become profitable. The copyright term on a sound recording is now 70 years, so there’s plenty of time to exploit them.

9. Being good to work with is worth about 25% of your operating budget.

Goodwill is difficult to quantify, but few would argue that you save money when people want to work with you. Labels rely on a variety of professional service providers, many of whom have the scope to deliver considerably more than is strictly required by any contract that might exist. You can make whole products out of this extra work, and then sell them for money. Some of the best PR we got for the label came as a result of partnering with Dolby to release our Gabrieli album in their new Atmos surround format. They gave us incredible support with the recording and post-production and even hosted a launch event, all free of charge. Over four and a half years, between reduced fees, extra work, free promotion and advice, I estimate the free services we got amounted to 25% of our operating budget. For most labels, that’s the difference between a profit and a loss, and it isn’t a zero-sum game: a lot of the things people gave us cost them nothing, but would have been expensive for us to buy elsewhere. Manners cost nothing, but politeness certainly isn’t worthless.

10. There are many measures of success.

If your goal is “make money” then you can check your bank balance. If your aims are more complex, you’ll need a more complex way to measure it. A question like “is this making us look good?” requires more sophisticated measurement and nuanced understanding than “do we have more cash” but it’s still possible.

In its first year as a label, King’s College got more press coverage for its recordings than for all its research and other academic activity. It’s a surrogate variable, but it’s an indicator of success, and you can measure it with something as simple as Google Alerts.

Recorded media projects have attracted significant philanthropic support. If somebody gives you £100,000 to keep recording things, you look pretty good to them.

Charts tell you how you’re doing relative to everybody else. There have been several occasions over the last four years when King’s College has had more albums in the top ten than Warner or Decca, the two major labels holding the bulk of the choir’s back-catalgoue.

With Nine Lessons & Carols, we had an unusual opportunity to compare our first product to an almost identical album released by EMI some years earlier. Although the recorded music market had contracted by 50% in the intervening years, we still sold twice as many copies worldwide. This is a fairly good sign our marketing worked.

If recordings were improving the choir’s reputation, you’d expect it to get better gigs – and that’s exactly what happened, with increased fees, debut performances at prestigious venues and its first ever prom, performing repertoire from one of our most successful albums (Fauré’s Requiem). It’s not often you can draw an unambiguous line from a profitable recording project to a sold-out televised gig at the Albert Hall, but by the time it happens, you’ve already won the argument.

If you’d like to discuss your label, recording strategy or other new media projects, contact me at or check out my work at

* I’m basing this “best-selling new classical label” claim on the BPI’s Music Market 2016 report, which includes a table of classical labels by market share, itself based on Official Charts Company data.


It doesn’t tell you how many records any of the other labels sold, but it does list every label that sold more classical records than we did. They’re all considerably older and have considerably larger catalogues. King’s College sells 20x as many copies per title as the industry average. I’m happy with that.

** “We” here means Stephen Cleobury (the most complete musician I have ever met), the choir (the most professional group of musicians you could hope to encounter, half of whom are younger than the iTunes store), numerous fellows of the college and the staff of the choir office, chapel office, computer office and college accounts department (who all said “yes” to things when they could easily have refused, and put in extra work to absorb recording as a new part of daily life at the college), Benjamin Sheen (who as Recordings and Media Officer rebuilt the college recording system and then produced and engineered about half the catalog on it), the team from Abbey Road (Simon Kiln, Arne Akselberg and Richard Hale, who taught me more about sound recording in a week of sessions than I learned in years at college), the team at LSO Live (who bent over backwards to make extraordinary things happen at short notice) and Kate Caro and her team at Intermusica (who came up with the idea to do this in the first place and supported the project every step of the way). Some of these people are credited in the CDs, but many are not. I am extremely grateful to them all.

I saw this Qobuz ad on Facebook this morning. It has some issues.

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  1. By all means test it for yourself. Your magical bat ears may hear the difference, but unless it’s a blind test, the placebo effect will distort the result. They could easily build a blind test, but they don’t. You should wonder why that is.
  2. Qobuz is not the only music service to stay true to the music. What does that even mean? There are other lossless/hi-res stores. I like the Hyperion one.
  3. No recording sounds exactly like the music that was played, but to the extent that any recording does, any two digital copies of a given bit depth and sample rate will be identical, regardless of where you bought them.
  4. These pictures do not show the difference between the formats named below them. The bar graphs show different sample rates, which aren’t mentioned at all. This is really misleading.
  5. MP3 covers a wide range of encoding qualities, and bunching them all together allows for really unfair comparisons. At its upper end, lossy compression is getting very good indeed.
  6. “Second to none” means “nothing is better” not “better than anything else”. You could say the same thing for the CDs they sell at Poundland.* This is not a great endorsement.

Bullshit with nice pictures and a semicolon is still bullshit. There might be good reasons to prefer Qobuz as a source of music, but this advert isn’t offering any of them.

Factcheck this advert, and what true statements are you left with? That they have “30 millions tracks”?


* Don’t like classical crossover? Get your daily fix of schadenfreude by seeing who ends up in Poundland’s classical selection.


If your business depends upon beans, you need somebody to count them. Unfortunately, it often turns out to be one of these guys…

The Hoarder

A close relative of the overprotective librarian (who lives to protect the books from people who might otherwise read them), the hoarder likes beans. He just doesn’t know what they’re for, so he keeps them away from anybody who might use them to get anything done. Look for great cashflow and no customers.

The Coward

He doesn’t understand risk, but he knows he doesn’t like it. He only risks beans on things which seem totally safe, which, to mix metaphors for a moment, puts all the eggs a single basket of uncertain structural integrity. Look for a shrinking company doing the same thing for years.

The Logical Positivist

Everything is measured in beans. If something cannot be measured in beans, it does not exist. The less something looks like a bean, the less it exists. “Goodwill,” “loyalty,” and “reputation for excellence” do not look like beans, and this is why you have no customers.


Q. Am I really incompetent?


Q. Really?


Q. I’m pretty sure I’m not.

That’s not a question, but I’ll let it go. You think you’re good at your job because you lack the skills to form an accurate assessment of your abilities. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. You wouldn’t know “competent” if it hit you in the face.

Q. Then how come you’re the first person to notice?

I’m not. I’m just the first person to mention it. It’s likely that every competent person working for you has figured it out, but has thus far been too polite to mention it. To you, at least.

Q. You mean they talk about this behind my back?

Oh yes. It is common knowledge.

Q. But I’m successful. If I’m incompetent, why hasn’t my boss noticed?

It may be that your boss is incompetent too.

Q. Then how come my boss is even more successful than me?

It is surprising quite how many people manage career success in the total absence of ability. You’ve probably been getting the credit for all the work done on your behalf by the very people who are too polite to expose you. They are not well rewarded for this, because the person who is supposed to look out for them is totally incompetent.

Q. You’re telling me that market economies are not perfectly meritocratic?

When our parents tell us “life isn’t fair,” this is the situation to which they are alluding.

Q. That’s awkward. Even so, I’m pretty sure there are things I’m good at.

There are. The combination of tasks and activities known collectively as “your job” is not one of them.

Q. That’s harsh…

…but fair.

Q. So where do we go from here?

Keep your head down. The chances are you’ll get away with it. In time you’ll make the subtle adjustment to measuring your self-worth in terms of how much you get paid instead of whatever you previously thought yourself able to accomplish.

Q. Isn’t that a terribly depressing way to live?

It is for the competent among your staff who are carrying the whole enterprise while struggling to make ends meet.

Q. What do I do if anybody notices?

Your boss won’t notice because your competent staff are doing your job for you. Your staff have already noticed, so don’t worry about them. If one of them looks like they’re about to bring it up, delegate your entire job to them, and then micromanage them so you feel busy and in touch with what’s happening. You’ve probably done this part already.

Q. What then?

Wait for something to go wrong. You’ve already set up your scapegoat. It’s time to take the credit for exposing them.

Q. Won’t that leave my department with even fewer competent people?

Yes. It’s ultimately unsustainable (which is why large companies eventually fail) but it happens on a timescale which allows you to accumulate both wealth and prestige.

Q. So I get to keep my job?

Oh yes. “Failing up” is what management careers are made of.

See also: You’re Wrong: an F.A.Q.

Over the last year or so, quite a bit has been written about the particular challenges of presenting classical music on digital platforms, with a focus on metadata.

About half my work at the moment is on metadata-related technology projects. Much of what is written on this subject is confusing, misleading, or downright wrong. This makes it harder to develop real solutions to real problems, so I’m writing this post to clear a few things up.

If you’re writing an article about classical music on the Internet, please read this first. Your article will be better. If you’re having trouble with the way your metadata is stored, displayed or communicated, call me.

I’ll be talking about this in sessions at both Classical Next and Midem, filling in for Chris McMurtry, another former Naxos employee and the founder and CEO of Dart Music.

In the meantime:

1) Metadata for classical music is not uniquely difficult.

People like to think it is, but that’s rubbish. Our problems are shared with other genres.

Multiple guest artists in roles that are difficult to credit accurately? Hip-hop. Multiple renditions of the same work? Jazz. The same piece called different things in different languages? World music.

These things are only uniquely important to classical music if you think classical music is more important than the other genres. It might be to you, but a blinkered approach to these issues makes it harder to present a business case to fix them.

2) This is not simply a retailer problem

Spotify is bad for classical music? No. It just doesn’t display all the information you want.

It’s tempting to think the music you like is more deep and sophisticated than the music you don’t like, but this doesn’t change the fact that people buy music you hate on the basis of information not displayed on Spotify or the iTunes store. They manage just fine. The difference is, they don’t see extended metadata as the retailer’s problem. There are other places to list the production team or translate the lyrics.

3) Things are no worse than they were twenty years ago

The people who complain that classical music is hard to find on SpottyAppleTunes are the same people who miss rummaging through bins in record stores. As if “alphabetical by composer or artist depending on the whim of the person who unpacked the box” is a logical and foolproof way to shelve and then later retrieve the 5% of classical recordings they happen to have in stock at any one time.

4) We do not need more fields

It’s easy to suggest it’ll fix everything, but until we can display the fields we have properly, adding more will make things worse, not better.

Worst-case scenario, we need three fields: Album title, track title, artist names.

We can put the composer and work title in the track title thus:

Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No. 1 in C Op. 21: 1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio (1967 recording)

We wrote it all on the back of the physical CD, and nobody whined about that. Just writing it all in the database wouldn’t be fatal. What’s important is (a) making sure you can see it and (b) making sure you can search it. There’s a much better chance of all the important data getting searched if you put it in the places the search engine is already looking.

It’s nice if the work, artist and composer names are always spelled consistently, and we have tools to do that, but it’s even better if the search engine is smart enough that a bit of variety isn’t fatal.

5) This is not about database design

“We need a more sophisticated database” sounds like a satisfyingly technical solution, but it’s waffle.

Even the stores with the worst user experience have a database that is perfectly capable of holding enough information to uniquely identify every recording ever made. It’s often either (a) not displayed at all or (b) put in the wrong places because the feeds from the distributors to the stores are not quite hooked up properly, and nobody understands both (a) the music and (b) the XML feeds well enough to sort it out. Often, a relatively small amount of documentation would help.

6) This is not about creating better data

We need 19th century librarians manually compiling a perfectly categorised directory? This is exactly how Yahoo worked until about 2002. See how that worked out?

Generally speaking, labels have good data. There are even agreed standards for communicating it. Sometimes it gets mangled up, but with a bit of research you can figure out what is what. Given that all the information is out there, wouldn’t it be nice to have a technological solution to figure this out? I’m working with several companies to do this, and I’m sure we’re not the only ones.

Database queries are for finding exact strings in uniform data.

Search engines are for looking for what you want (not what you actually typed) in imperfect data.

The future of classical music retail depends upon a mixture of the two, and a narrow focus on exact-match queries and uniform data is at odds with the delightfully messy world of creative expression.

7) There are easy answers.

Make. The. Covers. Bigger.

There. I fixed almost everything.

About half of the remaining trouble could be fixed if retailers gave content providers a picture of their user interface, clearly labelled with where each database field would be displayed. As far as I’m aware, nobody does this, leaving suppliers flinging information into a confusing void and hoping for the best.

Almost everything else would be better if backend metadata tools weren’t universally crap. You can’t see this while you’re quickly checking Spotify for a list of things to whine about in your article, but every tool I’ve ever seen for entering data relies on humans to do things that computers can do better.

8) Everybody is working on this.

Contrary to what you might have read, this isn’t a hugely neglected corner of the business or an unrecognised problem crying out for the will to fix it.

This is thousands of little problems, and we’re on it. It just takes a mixture of time, resources, hard work and imagination.

By all means keep asking for solutions, but let’s look for smart ones. Attempting to create a simple, flat, single uniform database is not the answer.

9) Metadata is not going to save classical music…

…or kill it. Make everything easy to find, and you might get a 10% uplift in sales. 30% if you come up with something totally revolutionary. That’s >$100m/year, which is not too shabby, but it won’t address long-term demographic shifts in the major markets, eliminate competition for leisure time and disposable income, or make the 150th recording of the same piece sound any more interesting.

If the big music companies don’t improve the display of their data, somebody will come along with an app that does it for them. Somebody has to pay for it. Whoever pays for it is the customer. Everyone else is the product.

Watch this space.

Only a few of the subjects of my “I’ve got a bone to pick with you” posts have ever got in touch. One wrote to apologise (which was unnecessary of course, but we had tea, and it was nice), another to ask me to take the article down (which I did because it was unfair) and Norman Lebrecht told me I don’t have any balls.*

Yesterday I wrote about Anil Prasad’s attack on streaming services. Today he got in touch. He has deleted most of his tweets now, so I’ve arranged the screenshots below in the order that makes most sense of the conversation:


That last one was a witheringly sarcastic put-down that will keep me awake at night, but the good news is that he has written a new piece. Here it is. I’m less inclined to take this one apart line-by-line because (1) I have work to do and (2) it doesn’t propose anything that might actually happen.

It does not address any of the flaws in his argument against streaming, but builds on this non-existent foundation to propose a business that charges significantly more for access to a smaller collection of music under an exclusive agreement that is the very definition of price fixing.

“Price fixing and bid rigging are among the group of antitrust offenses that are considered per se unreasonable restraints of trade. The courts have reasoned that these practices, which invariably have the effect of raising prices to consumers, have no legitimate justification and lack any redeeming competitive purpose and should, therefore, be considered unlawful without any further analysis of their reasonableness, economic justification, or other factors.”

US Department of Justice Antitrust Resource Manual

You can charge more for your music. You cannot get together with a group of other suppliers and agree to only sell at a certain price, even if you do not say out loud that this is what you are doing, and even if you believe you are doing it for the right reasons. It is a crime punishable by up to ten years in prison.

As he says: Good luck.


* Or possibly either that balls do not exist or that I should send him a picture of some – there were no verbs in his email, which rendered its meaning somewhat ambiguous. I have yet to work out what part of my behaviour would give him the idea that I’m afraid of him, so maybe he did want a pic. I’ll let you make up your own mind. The Internet is weird.
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Your article about streaming is misleading, contains factual inaccuracies, and gives bad advice.

I just wrote an article for NewMusicBox about streaming (it has cat pictures and everything). My goal was to provide some practical advice about what to do, because this is a thing that’s happening, and arguing about how good or bad it is doesn’t change the fact that some of us run labels, our jobs are changing, and we need to know what to do.

I see that you take the opposite stance. When you’re trying to get people to do something, the burden of proof is on you. You have not made a good case. Let’s address some specifics from your article:

1) “With virtually no consultation, musicians and independent labels are being led down the path of the streaming music construct controlled largely by technology companies.”

No music company was forced to agree to anything. Let’s be clear about that. They do it because they think it is a good deal. There is a chance they have more information at their disposal than you do.

2) “Streaming royalties for these services remain mired in mystery. Nobody is privy to how royalties are calculated or assigned to different players in the streaming ecosystem.”

Spotify explain how it works on their website. You could have Googled that.

3) “In what other industry would suppliers offer their goods to distributors without being told precisely how much they’ll receive for their inventory?”

The CD industry. Deals with CD distributors often work on a percentage, with final pricing at least partially at the discretion of the distributor. This is what I meant when I said “There is a chance they have more information than you do”. I’d encourage readers to make up their own minds, but it looks to me like you have no idea what you’re talking about.

4) “It’s clear Apple’s hand was forced and it had to enter into the streaming world, just to maintain credibility and market momentum for its device ecosystem.”

The download market was worth $3.5bn last year (2014) and streaming was worth $2.2bn. Might I humbly suggest that an alternative explanation is that (a) Apple customers would like to use a streaming service and (b) Apple see this as a way to make a lot of money?

5) “‘Streaming makes it very difficult for cult bands who sell 1,000 copies of each release,’ the noted British guitarist and composer Matt Stevens told me. ‘If 1,000 people stream an album 10 times, we probably make a few pennies versus 1,000 download sales which create a model that will pay for modest recording expenses.'”

If everybody who might at some point in the future stream a song from your album is also willing to buy the whole album right now, then you are in a very unusual position indeed and you might be well-advised to avoid streaming services. Such an extreme example of inelastic pricing, though, is in my experience unusual.

6) “Musicians and independent labels jumped along for the ride when Spotify, Rhapsody, MOG, and the rest of the streaming companies essentially constructed services with payouts so low, the end result isn’t much different than piracy. That, however, doesn’t hold true for the core investors in these services, which include the old major label guard. For instance, Spotify’s key backers include Warner, Sony and Universal.”

You expect us to believe that these companies – that’s right – these ones – have conspired to depress the price of music? Ok. By “key backers” you mean “minority shareholders”.

7) “…as the services scale, the streaming royalties actually shrink. Only ad and subscription revenue grow for the services, not royalty payouts.”

This is misleading. I refer you to this graph, which you can find in context here:


If the per-stream royalty has fallen, it can only because subscribers are, on average, listening to more music. Would you rather they didn’t?

8) “The grand irony of all of this is that no streaming service is yet profitable.”

This is simply not true. I have worked on profitable streaming services. You just don’t know about them. If the big ones aren’t profitable, it’s because they are doing something called “investment” which I have explained before here.

9) “Because of the incredible complexities of licensing and the ponzi-inspired nature of these organizations, money is rolling in.”

Also because people like them and they pay a lot of money to use them. Most of the money gets paid to labels. What happens next is between them and the artists. Just like with all other music sales.

10) “In Spotify’s case, they are looking at a giant monetization event in the form of an IPO or acquisition. If either occurs, everyone — including the major label backers — will cash out, and all that will be left is a feeble shell that will eventually collapse.”

Or, possibly, to build a long-term sustainable business that generates a profit for its shareholders while satisfying its customers and paying a fair price to its suppliers. One of the two. Unless your doomsday scenario has no expiry date, there’s an easy way to find out which.

11) “It’s obvious virtually all the insiders of the streaming companies see this model as a short-term, unsustainable play.”

No it isn’t. You see that there? I made that case with the exact same amount of evidence as you produced in your argument to the contrary.

12) “My advice is for musicians and labels to opt out of the commercial streaming services…”

Why the hell would anybody follow your advice? It is founded on falsehoods and unsubstantiated accusations.

13) “…and seek out other options available to them, such as Bandcamp and PledgeMusic, which appear to remain relatively honorable territory.”

Is this an aesthetic argument? They seem like nice indie guys? Is this what you’ve got?

14) “The big question musicians and independent labels need to ask themselves is why allow these companies to determine the value of your music?”

To reach a big audience. That’s it. Do it, don’t do it, it’s up to you. It’s the same dilemma you’d have doing a deal with a supermarket chain or a big box retailer: your products reach more people, all music is priced the same and that price is lower. Cut all the crap about conspiracies, and this is a straightforward business decision about pricing.

15) “You can send people interested in what you do anywhere to access your music.”

True, but people who have never heard of you won’t go looking for something they don’t know about in a place they don’t go. There’s a balance to be struck here, and not all records are expensive to make.

16) “The inevitability is musicians and labels are eventually going to be on their own again as the streaming services begin to collapse one by one across the coming years.”

If this is going to happen anyway, what are you so worried about?

17) “It’s time to plan for that future by establishing your own model now, apart from these companies.”

Better advice would be to seriously consider what part, if any, these companies play in your strategy.

18) “Reclaim your independence and ensure your music benefits the people that really believe in it, not soulless streaming companies seeking to take you for everything you’ve got.”

By all means retain (or reclaim) your independence. It matters, and it’s my job to help people do this. Part of that means not making business decisions on the basis of the unsubstantiated ramblings of some blowhard with a blog and the rhetorical flair of a low-budget Glenn Beck. These soulless companies pay out 70% of their revenue to rightsholders, they’re playing a long game, they know what they’re doing and labels participate because they see it is a logicial step towards more sustainable revenues. If you don’t accept this then prove me wrong.

If major labels are screwing people (which would hardly come as a massive surprise), then investigate that. Talk to some artists, collect some evidence, make a case, show people which specific clauses in the contracts are causing the problems. Find somebody who found a way round this and share what they did. That would actually be a useful thing that resulted in tangible action. Produce some evidence or shut up, because right now you have nothing but clickbait bullshit and it is not helping anybody.

A client (a major orchestra) recently asked me about a post by Norman Lebrecht about classical charts. The orchestra in question was concerned about what appeared to be a precipitous decline in sales, and wondered if it was sensible to embark on a recording project under these circumstances. I had to spend an evening undoing the damage that Norman’s idiotic bullshit had done.

Unlike Norman, I run a successful record company, so I generally have better things to do with my time than correct his ill-informed musings (if you want to see his ethical and epistemological failings catalogued in relentless detail, I suggest you follow @fakenlebrecht). Still, I’ve had to write this now, and I might as well share it.

Each week, Nielsen in the US and the Official Charts Company in the UK circulate charts showing the top selling new titles in each genre. They don’t publish the sales figures because it’s commercially sensitive information. “Giving it to inept egobloggers” is not on the list of the things you’re allowed to do with it. Despite this, the spreadsheets are circulated fairly widely, and Norman gets hold of them from time to time. Reading his commentary, you could be forgiven for thinking that a continuing trend of declining classical music sales had reached a new low.

Indeed, it’s hard to read it any other way. That’s because it is based on the most idiotic interpretation of the data I can imagine.

To come up with this interpretation from the actual figures, you’d have to ignore a significant amount of publicly available evidence to the contrary, you’d have to have almost no access to real record sales data, you’d have to be unfamiliar with the way charts work, make barely any effort to find out how they work and, crucially, to have no regular access to them.

Here’s how it works: charts include only a subset of recordings, count only a subset of sales, the sales of the #1 title vary hugely both seasonally and from week to week and are an extremely poor indicator of the health of the general business.

Every week, the official charts company emails me the UK’s specialist classical chart, which lists sales of albums less than 12 months old comprised of more than 60% classical repertoire (by length) as reported by participating retailers.*

Here’s a graph showing the sales of the #1 and #20 album on this chart, each week for a year. You could combine this with the charts themselves to get sales figures for all the best-selling albums of the last year, so the OCC asked me not to label the Y axis. That’s reasonable, since we don’t need it to understand the point. I can tell you that several of the #1s on this chart are records I’ve worked on, and one of those sold almost 1,000 units in a week. The US charts look similar, but the numbers are bigger.

Uk Classical Chart 2014-2015

There are easily more than 100k classical albums available to customers in the US and UK**. If you wanted to know how they, collectively, were selling, you could look at figures published by Nielsen and the BPI, which consistently show that while the entire record business has halved in size over the last fifteen years, classical sales are basically stable and not currently in the midst of a precipitous collapse.

If you insisted on using the sales of a single album in a single week as a proxy for the success of the business, the smart money would be on picking any album except #1. It’s literally the worst way of doing this.****



* That is to say, if a record is more than a year old, was only sold by a retailer that didn’t report sales to the OCC, or wasn’t deemed classical enough, it could sell a million units and not appear on this chart. I don’t know of anybody shifting a million units a week through museum gift shops and CD signings, but I’ve also arranged to sign up a retailer to the OCC’s reporting panel because we once missed out on having the #1 classical album on the busiest week of the year because we sold hundreds of units in the wrong shop.

** Citation needed? Ok. On their website, claims to have more than 120,000 recordings available in the US. I called Chris O’Reilly*** at Presto Classical in the UK. He told me he thinks they have almost everything available, with 78,000 core classical titles on CD and DVD, and another 40,000 digital-only audio products. My experience tends to suggest that Chris is basically right about core classical repertoire in the UK. If you count compilations, crossover albums, and little labels without distributors, there are probably a few more than this. The total is perhaps as many as 300,000 individual titles on sale at any one time, from thousands of labels around the world, and a subset of maybe 150,000 available in major markets like the UK and US.

*** You can just call people who know things and ask them stuff, and then check that against another source to see if it’s likely to be true. This seemed infinitely simpler (and plainly more reliable) than whatever journalistic technique resulted in the following story, every word of which is untrue:

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 12.16.39**** If you care about the truth, that is. If you’re totally cool with wilfully deceiving your readers and undermining the factual basis upon which they make business decisions, you will find constructing false narratives around isolated statistics to be the gift that keeps on giving. Which might be why it keeps happening.


If you’ve spent a lot of time on Facebook this week, you might have heard that Lexus has a new advert, and one or two people think it unfairly ridicules classical music.

Here it is:

[It goes like this: Guy drives car as Mozart plays. We see the music is coming from three string players in the back of the car. The car stops, he kicks the string players out, and drives off listening to something rather less serene.]  

I’m among the first to speak up when I think classical music is being unfairly represented, or when somebody’s trotting out tired clichés about our artform, but this isn’t one of those times.

This is not about you. This is not about classical music. This is about selling cars. If you’re upset by this, you’ve either not seen many Lexus ads, or you need to stop taking yourself so seriously.

Lexus didn’t just sidle on up to classical music and appropriate it as shorthand for stuffy and dull. This isn’t the first time Lexus has used classical music in an advert. They’ve been doing it for years. Lexus has built its brand by using classical music to suggest that driving one of their cars is a luxurious experience enjoyed by sophisticated people who appreciate the finer things in life.

They want you to think of their new car as exciting, sporty and adventurous. You could normally illustrate all those attributes with orchestral music, of course, but music has a history with their brand. They’ve used classical music to mean “luxurious and sophisticated” for more than a decade. Now they’re saying their new car isn’t like that, or rather it can be, but it doesn’t have to be – not all the time.

The only thing they’re making fun of here is other Lexus ads, and they’re doing it in Australia, where adverts are funny and people are expected not to take themselves too seriously.

If you don’t want people to think classical musicians are uptight, you might want to chill out a bit.

Last week, a client received an email from a fan who expressed surprise that my client’s new record was only available as a compressed download from iTunes.

The prevailing level of misunderstanding over the sound quality possible from a store like iTunes is perhaps best-encapsulated by this excerpt of a review of Cameron Carpenter’s latest album by Mark Swed, of the LA Times:

“…the real deal requires the real deal. The touring organ is a digital instrument, and on it Carpenter does his wowing best in the best digital sound, which isn’t bad on the CD (and is bad on restricted mp3 downloads on Amazon and iTunes or streaming sites). On studio master download from sites that handle high definition, though, the touring organ becomes a conveyor of psychedelic electronic music in a class of its own.”

Amazon does sell MP3 files, but iTunes uses the AAC codec instead. As a consumer, the exact distinction between these isn’t terribly important, but if you’re the music critic for the LA Times and you’ve taken it upon yourself to weigh in on audio quality, it’s something you really ought to understand. Streaming sites also employ a variety of types and degrees of compression. Beats uses MP3 and AAC. Spotify uses Ogg at a variety of bitrates.

Lumping all these formats together (and dismissing them) just because they’re “compressed” makes about as much sense as equating the sound of 78s and LPs just because they’re both round. It’s really exactly that stupid, and yet here’s a respected music critic doing just that (and not for the first time).

I’m all for good audio quality, but the obsession with “lossless” is a distraction which has almost completely obfuscated any sensible discussion of useful improvements to the way normal people hear music.

It’s a common misconception to measure expected audio quality in terms of bitrate. Intuitively, it seems as if more data will mean higher quality, but this isn’t always the case. The trouble with lossless codecs is that they’re very inefficient – even a compressed lossless format like FLAC or ALAC is generally encoding things that humans simply cannot hear.

It helps to consider the bitrate not as a measure of the merits of an encoding system, but as a measure of its cost. We’re commonly encouraged to treat bitrate as a proxy for quality, but really this is like measuring the performance of a car by looking at it’s fuel consumption. True, fast cars use a lot of petrol, but so do bad ones.

We might consider the amount of data required to transmit a page of text. As a text file, it might take up a few kilobytes. If we take a high resolution photograph of the page, it might yield a thousand times as much data, but when it is read aloud, it will sound exactly the same. We could use a microscope to photograph every fibre on the surface of the page, but if what we want to do is read the text, there’s a lot of data there we simply don’t need.

People don’t seem to have a problem with this when it comes to pictures. Nobody says “I won’t look at a website unless all the images are TIFF files”, because that’s plainly ridiculous. We’ve all seen badly compressed images on the Internet, and we’ve all seen beautiful ones too. We understand that “what it looks like” is the reliable measure of, well, what it looks like.

Eyes work differently to ears, though. Eyes are much harder to bamboozle with plausible-sounding pseudoscience. This is why there is no market for super-high-end TVs which reproduce infra-red and ultraviolet light. We all just accept that these are parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that we cannot see, and we leave it at that.

One of the (many) things my company does is to help broadcasters to encode audio for delivery to consumers. When they look into it, they almost always settle on AAC – and not because they’re too cheap to store something bigger.

The fact is that AAC is efficient. Bit for bit, it achieves higher audio quality than just about any other method of storing digital audio. AAC works at a variety of bitrates. It would theoretically be possible to use something like AAC at 1411kbps. If you did that, you’d achieve far higher quality than a CD can store.

Why isn’t this done? Well, AAC is a perceptual codec, which means that its success at reproducing a sound is measured by examining what users hear. When figuring out which bits of the sound to keep, the focus on the bits that are audible. In rigorous double-blind tests published in peer-reviewed journals, nobody could find any point in encoding AAC at a higher bitrate than 256kbps. Without preconceptions to guide them, under test conditions, people simply couldn’t tell the difference between 256kbps Vbr AAC and the highest quality studio masters. Consistently.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all AAC files sound great. To make a 16-bit CD from a 24-bit studio master, you normally add a small amount of noise in a process called dithering, to improve the dynamic range.

This noise is unnecessary in AAC encoding. By skipping this step, and by avoiding the very loudest signals than can cause distortion on decoding, it is possible to create an AAC from a studio master which more accurately reflects the audible portions of the original than is possible with a CD or uncompressed PCM WAV file.

This is how Mastered for iTunes works. Although not marketed very effectively, it’s really rather clever. Instead of saddling the user’s storage and bandwidth with inefficiently stored data and sounds they cannot hear, Apple has pushed the work back onto the producers. We do some extra work to make a more efficient master, and the consumer gets better sound with less than a fifth of the data.

There are circumstances where it makes sense to record audio at a higher degree of fidelity than is perceptible to the human ear, but once a record is finished, there’s no harm in throwing out the parts nobody can hear. When you buy a Mastered for iTunes AAC, you’re getting less data, but you’re still getting all of the music.*

*Unless you’re a dog. If you’re a dog, SACD or 96kbps downloads will sound noticeably better than CDs**. Don’t buy anything over 192khz, though. People who sell 384khz downloads to dogs are ripping them off. That stuff is for bats. They are most discerning customers.

** Perhaps Mark Swed is getting his dog to write his reviews for him. It certainly is an alternative explanation. If I had a literate dog, “music critic” would not be the way I exploited it for financial gain.