Naxos Music Library: a critique

Music streaming is where it’s at. Apple and Twitter are apparently launching their own new streaming services. Other major players like Spotify and Last.fm are well-established as the market leader (and Spotify in the UK recently reacted to potential competition by eliminating the 5-play limitation). Streaming radio stations, from Classic FM to all of the BBC radio stations, are old news.

But what about ‘classical’ music?

As far as I’m aware there is only one on-demand music streaming service specialising in classical music: Naxos Music Library (in fact, even if there are others, institutions aren’t using them). Unsurprisingly, the Oxford University Music Faculty has a multiple-user subscription to this site, in common with many other institutions. Of course they do – nothing else is on offer, and if it reduces the amount they spend on CDs, which take up both budgets and shelf space (and may be about to go the way of the Dodo) then it’s worth it. But is the Naxos Music Library any good?

Here’s a brief summary of Naxos Library’s features.

Good things:

  • It’s very comprehensive – a huge library of recordings.
  • Similarly, the database of composers (some including birth and death dates) is excellent. The ability to look up music by composer, then see basic information for each piece, as well as a collated list of the available recordings, is excellent. This, along with the possibility of looking up music by genre, are the features that  really distinguish Naxos from other services like Spotify that aren’t so focused on ‘classical’ music.
  • It’s very reliable.

Not-so-good things:

  • The search is terrible (in which I include the search results page, which isn’t anywhere near as useful as it could be).
  • The interface & design are completely outdated, and rather clunky. They haven’t been updated in the five years I’ve been using it, which says something.
  • The quality of the performances varies widely, to say the least, although this is perhaps to be expected given that Naxos is a budget label.
  • There aren’t really options for streaming at different qualities. At most there’s a premium and standard option, but often you don’t get a choice.
  • You can’t make playlists, so tracks from different albums can’t be played immediately after one another without going back into a search or category and selecting a different CD.
  • There aren’t any social features. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of connecting different services – my Facebook isn’t connected to my Spotify account – but if users were able to recommend tracks, then the really bad performances could potentially be weeded out of the system.

Mixed:

  • It is theoretically possible to create playlists, and there are Naxos’ own playlists available for selection. However, I think the fact that no-one from Oxford has ever created a playlist says something about its implementation. I had to download their user guide to figure out how to work with playlists, and I really can’t remember the last time I had to look up the user guide for anything. Then when I had looked at the user guide the first two albums I came to didn’t have the option to create a new playlist (WF Bach and WA Mozart, for the record).

On balance, then, this is not the best service in the world. I don’t want to be too down on poor old Naxos because I use it a fair amount, it’s very reliable, and it works perfectly well in a basic way. On the other hand, there is clear room for improvement.

I think there is serious potential for a competitor in the specialist ‘classical’ music streaming market. Labels such as Hyperion are saying they don’t want to put their music on Spotify due to the low fees, which is entirely reasonable. But streaming isn’t going to go away, and we can’t continue to just go along with those in the classical world who are resistant to technology (I’m planning to address these issues further in other posts), and I feel that at the moment many of us are missing out on useful technology as well as potential income. I’m aware that there are plenty of issues with finding a business model for streaming music, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to try and make it happen, and challenge the default dominance of Naxos Music Library.

This is going to be one in a series of posts about music streaming, and both the issues and opportunities surrounding it. Check back soon for more!

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