How Steve Jobs Changed the Course of Classical Recordings

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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: