We’re stuck at home, making our own entertainment, so now seems like as good a time as any to tell you the story of the closest I ever came to winning a Grammy.

In 2007, I had a ridiculous job at iTunes, as part of the team putting together promotions for the store. Most of my job was meeting with labels and listening to new releases, but I also worked on our annual Grammy promotion.

There were something like 117 Grammy award categories, and for each of these there were normally five nominees. Somebody had to look up >500 songs and albums, and check we were linking to the right ones.

You start off at the beginning with the big ones – Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Best New Artist, and then things get steadily more obscure. This was how I discovered there was an award for Best Polka Album.

This award has been given 24 times, 18 of them to the same person. That person is Jimmy Sturr. Here he is. It may provide valuable context to tell you this video is not from the late 70s or early 80s, but from 2010.

Now, Best Polka is not Album of the Year, but a Grammy is a Grammy, and it started to dawn on me that if I wanted one, the lowest hanging fruit, as it were, might be in the field of Polka music.

Jimmy Sturr is an experienced and successful recording artist with at least 40 albums to his name, but the Grammys are voted on by a committee of other recording artists. Polka is a relatively small field. Classical music is huge. What was needed, I reasoned, was a crossover album.

I joked about doing this with friends for a year or so, and people mostly smiled and nodded politely and said, “yes, Andy, *you* should do that”, but it takes a village to make a Polka album, and I can’t play the accordion, so nothing much happened.

Until I mentioned it to Lara St John. Now, Lara is a successful violin soloist, she lives in New York, and she has her own label. She knows lots of people who play different types of music and, most importantly, she’s the kind of person who doesn’t just talk about things, she actually does them.

These are my favourite kinds of people. When I mentioned it to Lara, she said “let’s do it”. And so our classical/polka crossover project was born.

An ensemble was formed, incorporating a Klezmer band with which Lara played some gigs, and the contra-bassoonist from the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. Lara’s friend and fellow fiddler Daniel Lapp rounded up some suitable folk melodies for us to arrange.

Polka-related puns loom large in the American polka canon, so we aimed high, hoping for something that said “this is classical”, “this is polka” and “this is not entirely serious”.


You don’t get a Grammy statue unless you do something, so my French horn got dusted off and I became the most out-of-practice member of what was otherwise shaping up to be a band of very fine musicians. We had fun.

We rehearsed and recorded, we mixed and mastered, and a release date was set. A marketing plan was made. We googled “Polka DJs” and somehow found a list of radio stations who were, amazingly, pleased to hear from us.

We even booked a NY launch gig at a Le Poisson Rouge. There wasn’t much on that week – the NY Phil was opening its season with a new music director, and nobody was going up against that. We got listed in the NY Times.

They even sent Allan Kozinn to to review it. He seemed to have a good time. To give you some idea of what you missed, here’s Clarinet Polka, played on a bassoon.

And when it came to releasing the record, we had some good luck and some bad luck. You may recall I was working on the iTunes store. At the time, our biggest promotions involved free downloads. We’d give away a track each week, and people would buy the album.

Each week, we’d have to get a label to sign a contract to let us give away their track. If they didn’t send in the contract as the deadline approached, the promotion would go to somebody who could get the contract signed quickly. You can guess what’s coming.

So a contract was late, and as the clock ticked down, I was the only person in the room able to sign the contract myself, our track went out to hundreds of thousands of people.

This prompted some interesting reviews.

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But at least one person was touched by our record.


And in the end, two things happened.

The first is that we had the #1 World Music album.


The second is they dropped the Best Polka category from the Grammys.

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You can hear our album on Spotify and Apple Music.

The band went on to do a tour and a second album. I left the US for a label job in England. I never did win a Grammy, but I haven’t completely given up hope. When I quit my job at Apple, I had to exercise my stock options, and, with only one child and a fancy job ahead, we spent a chunk of the money on a holiday in Hawaii. It was a nice resort, by the beach, with a bar by the pool. Next to the cash register in the bar was a small statue of a golden gramophone, awarded to one of the bartenders in the category of “Best Hawaiian Album”.

Dear All,

Here are the minutes from the annual general meeting of the International Association of Bravo Guys.

Membership Survey

The preliminary results of our member survey are in, and we’re happy to report that:

35% of our members shout “bravo” before the applause because they can longer contain their appreciation of the performance
53% are indifferent to the actual concert but are engaged in fierce competition with other local members to be the first to shout “bravo”
13% get really frustrated sitting quietly for the length of a concert
4% have a rare form of Tourettes
1% wrote “echolocation” and gave no further details


Membership figures continue to grow as venues continue to be built and opportunities to be the first person to shout “bravo” now arise in more contexts than ever before.

The option has arisen to merge with a number of other vocal audience participation groups with substantial crossover in membership. After surprisingly heated debate it was agreed not to formally join forces with the Global Society of People who Shout Encore, the Union of People Who Bring Scores to Concerts or The Society for the Advancement of Shushing Anybody Who Claps Between Movements.

We will continue to work together on issues of mutual interest.

Declensions Working Group

The Italian delegation helpfully explained that “Bravo” is for one a male performers, “Brava” is for a female performer, “Brave” (pron. Bravé) is for a group of women and “Bravi” for a group of performers at least one of which is male.

The French contingent said they use “Bravo” for everyone, and the expression has entered common usage in France, making the Italian usage entirely irrelevant.

An English member pointed out that proscriptive grammar was an approach largely discredited among linguists, and that an observational approach examining common usage would be more productive.

The American delegation observed that “Bravo” is more satisfying to say loudly.

A motion was offered to rename the society “The International Association of Bravo (or Any Variation Thereof) Guys”.

Following a lengthy and largely unproductive discussion, it was agreed that the Association should not take an official position on any of this and everybody would carry on shouting whatever they want.


Following complaints from the Operatic Chapter, the chair would like to remind members that:

1) Members may not shout “bravo” (or any variation thereof) until after the performers have ceased producing the final note.

2) The window of opportunity lasts until either:

i) The reverberation of the last note ceases to be audible
ii) Another member shouts “bravo” (or any variation thereof)
iii) More than three members of the audience (not including the stage manager) begin to applaud in earnest

3) If another member begins their “Bravo” before you, they have right of way and you must yield

4) If you regard another member’s “Bravo” to use the wrong declension, it is acceptable to follow up with a “Bravo” of your own to ensure the correct utterance is made at least once, but it is considered the height of discourtesy to emphasise the second syllable

5) Exceptions to Rule (1) only apply to through-composed operas listed in the appendix

Live Recordings

The recordings working group delivered the disappointing news that:

1) The Musicians Union do not consider “Bravo Guy” to be a legitimate category of performer

2) PPL do not currently acknowledge “Bravo” as a musical work as defined by the Berne Convention because it consists of a single word and is not meaningfully pitched. They have not yet responded to our query regarding “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, which we await with interest.

3) Warner/Chappell declined our offer of a license on the grounds that their legal department still hasn’t forgiven them for the “Happy Birthday” debacle.

As things stand, the working group’s recommendation is that members should only shout “bravo” during live recordings if they are prepared to do so on a pro-bono basis. This being in line with the current compensation arrangements for live performances, it was hoped that the membership would continue their enthusiastic work in this area.

Female Membership

Following several submissions from the floor it was agreed to revisit the question of allowing female members.

There were no objections among those present, but as this requires an amendment to the Association’s articles of constitution, it was agreed to refer the matter to a vote of the full membership.

It was observed that the entire question may be moot: since the Association’s founding as an offshoot of the Council of Trent in 1563, records show that not once has “bravo guy” turned out to be female.

Any Other Business

Following the incident last year, we are once again looking for a venue to host our Christmas dinner. Suggestions to the chair of the Entertainments Committee, please.


Why do you want to work at this company?

My life presents few opportunities to feel in control. I toyed with the idea of self-harm, but then I remembered I could get paid to dream up arbitrary rules and enforce them with no real consistency.

What attracted you to this particular position?

You seem like an ineffective manager, and I’m confident I can exploit that.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge in this role?

Finding the time to project my failings onto others when it would almost always have been easier to just do the work properly and constructively in the first place.

Describe your approach to partner management.

The fact that I’m sitting here at all is testament to the revolving-door nature of both sales and purchasing positions. Seeing few opportunities for advancement among a team I had repeatedly betrayed, I happily sold out my last employer to look good in your eyes, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

How would you describe your management style?

Passive-agressive with a twist of unpredictably despotic.

We have an unusually high turnover of staff. How would you address this issue?

You have to break their spirit quickly. Once they develop hope, they are harder to control.

Describe an occasion when you encountered conflict in the workplace, and explain how you resolved the situation.

A co-worker used some of my almond milk without asking. I sent a SWAT team to his house at 5am.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

As an indispensable part of the organisation. Having inserted myself into every conceivable process, I’ll function as a speed-bump. Nothing will get done without me and precious little will get done with me, but I’ll be too powerful for anybody to get rid of.

What are your salary expectations?

More than is justified by my contribution, but not so much that I can’t conceivably resent those around me. This might seem like a fine line, but actually my wildly inflated sense of my own importance gives you quite a bit of leeway here.

Do you have any questions?

How long should one decently wait before cooking up a spurious HR complaint that results in no real action but which renders one essentially unfireable for all eternity?

Modern Christmas has become a confusing mashup of pagan tradition and hedonistic consumerism masquerading as a Christian festival*, so it should come as no surprise that some Christmas music is, at best, “problematical”.

*citation needed

With your indulgence I hereby make the case that, if you want your children to grow up well-adjusted, and without any strange ideas about free will, authority, consent or basic geography, then you won’t let them listen to any Christmas music. At all. Ever.

Exhibit A) Once in Royal David’s City

Four “lowly”s in six verses are indicative of the Victorian obsession with class, but verse three is where it really goes awry:

And through all His wondrous childhood
He would honour and obey,
Love and watch the lowly mother
In whose gentle arms He lay.
Christian children all should be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

Leaving aside the fact that it wasn’t mild obedience that got Jesus tortured and publicly executed by the political elite, let’s take a moment to consider the legacy of centuries of encouraging children to unthinkingly acquiesce to authority within the institution of the Church.

Exhibit B) Baby it’s cold outside

When you absolutely positively have to normalise rape culture in a specifically yuletide fashion, accept no substitute. This song makes “Blurred Lines” look like a thoughtful paean to consent in healthy relationships.

If you get as far as the line “Say what’s in this drink?” and still think he’s just being hospitable, you belong to the Bill Cosby school of seduction technique and you are excused from DJing the Christmas party.

Exhibit C) I Saw Three Ships

Bethlehem is 2,500ft above sea level and 20 miles from any large body of water. You didn’t see three ships. You’re up a mountain. This is the kind of bullshit whitewashing that occurs when Europeans (from the similarly landlocked county of Derbyshire, in this instance) appropriate a Middle-Eastern religion and twist its symbols and mythology in support of an authoritarian system of imperialist government with little regard for basic geography.

Exhibit D) Santa Baby

In religious Christmas music, you get to dismiss all the bits you don’t like by saying “it’s allegorical”. In secular music, there’s less flexibility to sidestep the appalling implications of what is being said.

Exhibit E) Little Donkey

This school nativity staple is a disaster of woolly logic that would be a triumph of style over substance if it weren’t also a shitty song about a donkey. In verse one, we’re on a road and Bethlehem’s in sight. Why, then, are we later following a star? This is like when you’re too busy looking at the GPS to notice you just drove past the inn. If Joseph had just stopped and asked for directions instead of relying on celestial navigation, they might have arrived in time to get a room. Also, if there’s a star, why are the “wise” men “waiting for a sign to bring them here”? Maybe they’re still trying to sail their ships up a mountain?

If they weren’t so busy being mild and obedient, even the kids would point out this is utter bullshit.

Exhibit F) Santa Claus is Coming to Town

If you’re ever wondering how Christmas tipped over the edge from “bastardised religious festival” into “pagan cult of consumer electronics” then look no further than this song about the vengeful Catholic Santa of the Old Testament, embodied with powers of omnipresence (“he sees you when you’re sleeping”), omniscience (“he knows if you’ve been bad or good”) and a sinister hint at omnipotence (“so be good for goodness sake”).

In this song, the fourth member of the Trinity is a third-Century Turkish bishop who sneaks into your house to punish or reward children so impatient to experience supernatural judgement that eternal damnation is just too damn far off. Of all the bullshit with which we coerce our children, this is the absolute worst.

Exhibit G) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

Top marks to this carol’s anonymous 16th century authors for getting Satan into the first verse of an otherwise jolly song about rest, merriment, comfort, joy, and a winged serpent who tricks humans into doing wrong so he can torture them in perpetuity.

Exhibit H) It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

A pair of hop-along boots and a pistol that shoots
Is the wish of Barney and Ben,
Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk
Is the hope of Janice and Jen,
Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again.

Repeat after me: they’re not stereotypes. They’re examples. Extremely stereotypical examples.

Exhibit I) Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

Rudolph looks different so he is subjected to bullying in the workplace until he redeems himself by undertaking additional work in a hazardous environment. If you’re not reading this normalisation of out-group hostility as an allegory for white supremacy, you’re part of the problem.

See also

Exhibit J) Away in a Manger

You don’t have to be a hardline disciple of attachment parenting to realise that a feeding trough in a stable filled with semi-domesticated animals is not a place to put a newborn baby, especially in the middle of winter. This is a time for bonding, skin-to-skin contact, and the safe regulation of body temperature. The baby-safety-industrial-complex has worked hard to sell us the idea that babies need cribs, but if there was ever a time for co-sleeping, it’s when you’re sharing your hotel room with livestock.

Happy Holidays.


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.

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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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