How Steve Jobs Changed the Course of Classical Recordings


Wednesday, October 05, 2011 - 10:47 PM

Though he died at the relatively young age of 56, Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs has left a legacy that changed the shape of the music industry.

On April 28, 2003, Apple introduced a new downloading service called iTunes. It soon became the dominant player in the digital music revolution even as it dealt one of several death-blows to the recording industry. Ninety-nine-cent downloads rendered the standard format of the $20 CD an endangered species by decade's end. The casualties included Tower Records (1960-2006), Borders Books (1971-2011) and even media chains like Circuit City (1949-2009).

But downloads also led to a wider consumption of classical music, bringing it to places where traditional record stores were scarce. Meanwhile, artists realized they didn’t have to rely on major record labels to get their music heard, and classical stars from Gil Shaham to Simone Dinnerstein went out and made recordings on their own. ITunes gave them a direct distribution outlet.

After initial resistance, orchestras renegotiated their artist contracts to make recording and downloading of concerts a more immediate experience, so that the Los Angeles or New York Philharmonic could instantly get their performances onto iTunes. In one experiment in 2010, the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) linked up with iTunes and the Sunday Times to offer free downloads of pieces from Handel to Mahler, played by top British orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra.

Over time the iTunes store has promoted its share of classical success stories. In 2006, the young Dutch violinist Janine Jansen released a recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – complete with an alluring cover -- that was promoted on the main iTunes page. Over three-quarters of the album’s sales were on iTunes and it brought her a largely new audience, earning her the nickname “Queen of the Download.” Apple has also hosted recitals in its larger stores and occasionally featured classical personalities in its commercials (see below).

Shortcomings for Classical Consumers

At the same time, there have also been ongoing complaints about the way in which Apple organizes and delivers classical recordings.

As discussed in a recent WQXR Conducting Business podcast only 52 percent of the classical audience buys their music online, with many fans finding the iTunes' default experience more fine-tuned for rock than Bach. Apple has yet to significantly improve sound quality (though they do offer 256-kbps files, a step up from the days of 128-kbps music). Nor have they entirely figured out the knotty question of metadata (just try searching for a generic name like “adagio” and you’ll see what that means).

Of course, Apple Computer extends well beyond iTunes. It has given us the music-friendly iPhone, the iPad, and — coming this fall — iTunes Match, which allows customers to store their entire digital music collections in Apple's iCloud. Jobs may have been a rock guy – he named Apple after the Beatles’ record label -- but his company’s innovations helped move many classical music fans out of their stuffy old listening habits.

“I have seen the future, and it is called Shuffle,” wrote Alex Ross in his 2004 New Yorker article "Listen to This." The critic praised the iPod function that allows you to set the player to randomly select songs from a massive library, thus discovering connections between styles and genres.

But as Andy Doe, the former head of the classical iTunes store and now the chief operating officer at Naxos records said in an e-mail this morning, Apple helped democratize classical recordings in another way. "Unlike a traditional record store, iTunes has no glass wall between the classical department and the rest of the shop," he said. "We were told to put the best stuff on the homepage, and that was exactly what we did."

Doe continued: "We shouldn't underestimate the importance of this simple policy decision. At a time when mainstream music retail space was shrinking, specialist classical departments were disappearing and CDs were increasingly being sold in pop-only sections in supermarkets, here was a store that would carry (and recommend) all genres of music, let you listen before you bought, and deliver it right away, anywhere in the world."

Below are some of the more noteworthy Apple ads to feature classical music:


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Comments [17]

James from New Zealand

How can Steve Jobs say he likes Classical music when the Ipod is is so famously out of sync with the genre? Everything from Enescu to bloody Greensleeves is labeled 'Classical'. It organizes the music by the conductor or the lead cellist before the original composer. You can't access the pieces by their key and have to wait for it to scroll before you know what they are. In fact you often don't know what they are because the movements are seperated and there's no title, it just says 'Allegro' or 'Presto'. The pieces in a Sonata aren't grouped together at all, unless the Sonatas are divided into seperate albums.
The ipod is dreadful for classical music! Steve, bless his soul, didn't consider classical at all when he made this product!

Apr. 24 2012 03:39 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

Sadly, another giant of computer technology development has died recently. Dennis Ritchie, the designer and developer of the "C" programming language, which is still in wide use today and also has multiple offspring, like C++, C#, and even Java. Ritchie helped Ken Thompson (someone using that nick once posted on WQXR's blog) build the Unix operating system. Unix is still in wide use today and is the core of Apple's iOS. Yes, even today, Apple uses an OS that was originally developed about 40 years ago. Apple just puts a pretty face on it - the GUI (graphical user interface). Oh, and the GUI of the revolutionary original Mac? It was developed by Xerox PARC and the rights sold to Apple.

Oct. 13 2011 08:39 PM
santyjay from La Paz


Oct. 11 2011 01:19 AM

I guess nobody is going to write an article about how the Zune changed classical music.

Oct. 10 2011 09:25 PM
Jihn J. Christiano from Franklin

Mr. Frank Feldman....

A very good point and one worth remembering by all of us who enjoy the recorded sound.

We immerse ourselves daily in glorious sound made portable and recordable forever by products whose industry left our shores many years ago.

I also wonder if Apple or any of the other hi-tech companies ever voiced their concerns.

Oct. 10 2011 12:07 PM
susan satz from verona, new jersey

very easy solution to the problem of wqxr stopping when you turn on aol - just open a new tab or window. it works and i am happy again. just find something as simple for the radio problem - and i will be happier!

thank you for now.

Oct. 08 2011 10:25 PM
Frank Feldman

Let's also not forget that all his gadgets were manufactured in Chinese sweatshops, where suicide as a result of egregious labor conditions was not uncommon, and that he never lifted a finger to do anything about it. An "American" icon, indeed.

Oct. 08 2011 09:10 PM

I'm puzzled by all this Jobs adulation. This great "visionary" virtually destroyed thousands of jobs in the music industry, from the artist to the retailer, and made fighting piracy impossible. He also destroyed thousands if not millions of American manufacturing jobs by setting up prison-like sweatshops in China and other parts of Asia. Jobs was the symbol of the worst capitalism can be.

Apple has also been ranked worst among 14 leading electronics manufacturers in a survey that evaluated use of toxic chemicals and commitment to recycling their cheap, programed-to-break-so-you-can-buy-another gadget.

iPods, iPhones and iPads are supposed to be conveniences, but are they really? Now instead of just getting a CD from the shelf and playing it, we have to copy it to the computer then transfer it to the player. All of this, of course, designed so you don't buy CDs anymore and buy it directly from iTunes. Greed at its worst.

Oct. 08 2011 01:03 PM
Jesse Joseph

I agree with the people who have stated that they prefer CDs to on-line classical music. I find the sound superior and I much prefer the box to the hard drive of any sort. Let us keep the discs alive. I am certainly doing my share by buying loads of them .

Oct. 08 2011 08:15 AM
Al Luna from Bronx, NY

I agree that Steve Jobs was an innovator. But, his innovations were geared towards the everyday consumer. Ease of use, yes. Eye candy, yes. Excellent audio quality, look somewhere else. I have an ipod touch 3g that had been replaced by a Sony X1061( the "other" brand for audio gear), which was replaced by a Cowon J3. The clarity of this player is with out parallel. For classical music, none can compare.
BTW: Do not listen to a Cowon after purchasing an Ipod (just hit yourself over the head with a hammer). And no, I do not work for these companies.

Oct. 07 2011 02:55 PM
yichihara from NJ

Relating to what Mr. Christiano pointed out, there’s a good article on today’s WSJ Opinion section A15: Steve Jobs and the Coolest Show on Earth by David Gelernter, a computer science professor at Yale University. Steve was a forerunner of our desire and dream and was an architect (He regarded himself as a designer, according to the article) who gave shape and life to it.

Oct. 07 2011 01:54 PM

Thanks for your comments. Our audio help page should answer any questions you have about using the new player.

Please also note that you can open a new browser window to view other sites while listening to in the background if you wish.

Hope that helps,

Oct. 07 2011 10:40 AM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

What most people don't realize is that the electronics to perfrom his ideas did not exist. The software could be created but the hardware did not exist.

His ideas challenged the electronics industry to go out and design the chips and algorithms that could process the human interfaces and store the incredible amount of memory needed to handle the music.

It was the same way with Edison. He invented the ligh bulb but then had to figure out the entire electrical distribution system to support it and make it viable.

Oct. 07 2011 08:46 AM
Miriam Gross

The new format makes it impossible for me to listen to WQXR when I switch to another site. Previously there was a minimize button which permitted me to move to another site without turning off the music. Am I doing something wrong?

Oct. 06 2011 10:21 PM
Gary Friedland from Teaneck N.J.

To me classical music is still best served on CD'S or Records, where you can listen and fully enjoy the music through a good speaker system along with receiver or amplifier of top standards and the appropriate other devices which play your medium correctly.
I happen to own thousands of classical CD'S with top performances of all magnitudes and would never consider to listen on any other current format.
Steve Jobs was brilliant, but not when it comes
to enjoyment of classical music.

Oct. 06 2011 08:34 PM
yichihara from NJ

Very interesting article with insightful episodes such as Janine Jansen’s case and Andy Doe’s story, which make us realize how significant it was: the way Apple changed to market and present music as a whole. We tend to declare we are classical music fan, rock music fan, or jazz fan, not all music fan. But this tendency has been increasingly changing as we see more ‘cross over’ or ‘fusion’ among classical music artists. I see no points in confining ourselves in a turf.
One thing I had to put a question mark is, “only 52 percent of the classical audience buys their music online.” When a stats shows something is over 50%,I wouldn’t put ONLY as an adjective for the number. One of the reasons ‘ONLY 52%’ is, the average age of classical music audience is considerably high, compared to other genres of music. There are a lot more older adults as you can see at most classical music concerts than at jazz or rock concerts in general. Today’s older adults are quite tech savvy, but the majority of them would feel more comfortable with their long-term habits – buying disks.
Lastly we appreciate this historical achievement by Steve and Apple - Having taken classical music out of box, helped it expose to much larger, new audience, increased availability and affordability, piece by piece as you like, anywhere, anytime, as long as you are online, and expanded our experience meeting various kinds of beauty of the whole music world.

Oct. 06 2011 02:52 PM
Sean Hickey

Very nice article. There's no question that Apple - and Jobs - changed the consumption and storage of music for millions. The assumption, though, of the $20 CD being dead by decades end is not true. We at Naxos ship thousands of similarly priced compact discs every day. The contemporary classical music consumer has a variety of choices in how he or she wishes to experience recorded music, and if that leads to discovery the it's all for the better. Thank you, Steve Jobs, for finding an ingenious route to discovery for so many of us.

Oct. 06 2011 08:40 AM

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Ignite your love of classical music every day with the articles published in the WQXR blog. Here you can find blogs about classical music, playlist selections, curated videos, and other features highlighting the joy of great music.