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    ARIA Popular Classical Music

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Quality vs Quantity – Where to Find a Balance?

todayOctober 1, 2023 32

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We have been continuing to grow our library since our last report to you in August, and now have 49,739 tracks in our database.  I’m sure you can imagine how excited we’ll be when we break through the 50,000 count in the next week or so.

But I’m not sure if that is a cause for celebration or not!  We are finding ourselves moving too far towards the quantity side of the meter, and moving too far away from the quality side of the meter.  We have to consider three things when evaluating this count of tracks; I thought you might be interested to understand our thought processes and some of the factors we need to consider and balance as we continue to bulk up our music collection.

Quality – Performance

Clearly not every performance can be a stellar “best of breed” performance with the greatest orchestras, conductors, soloists, and recording quality.  By definition, any collection of similar items varies in quality, and any time you have a range of features, some of the items will be at the high end of the scale which unavoidably implies others are at the lower end of the scale.

This quality concept also applies to the musical pieces themselves.  Even the greatest composers had “off” days when they wrote music that for one reason or another never reached the heights of popularity of some of their other pieces.  For an example, think of Beethoven and his nine symphonies – how well do you know his fourth symphony, for example?  The one before – his third symphony (the “Eroica”) sometimes scores highest in popularity of all his symphonies, and of course, his fifth symphony is also right at the top of the charts, too.  But the fourth?  (And don’t get us started on how many of Mozart’s 41 symphonies, or Haydn’s 104 symphonies, are essential core parts of the repertoire and how many are never played!)

Another example.  Think of your favorite opera, whatever that may be.  Think of the really big pieces in that opera, the ones that are regularly featured and played.  You love those greatly, but aren’t there some other parts of even your favorite opera that are not so great, and which you’d be willing to skip or at least see abridged and shortened?

Of course it is important to us to have a broad range of musical pieces available, but the reality is that our library is increasingly extending to pieces of music that we’ll probably never, ever, play!  We tell ourselves that maybe, when we introduce listener request programs, it will be helpful then to have a very broad diversity of “just in case” pieces of music – or will it?  We expect (and hope!) most requests will be for popular rather than esoteric pieces of music, and we’re also not sure how to respond if a listener asks for a 60 minute piece of very hard-to-appreciate music!  How will that fit within our promise of presenting you with consistent quality music that you’re sure to love?

Quality – Technical

There is another aspect to quality that is also relevant.  While some of the very greatest performances, in artistic terms, were recorded many decades ago, their sound quality may not be nearly as good as that of more recent recordings.  (This statement has as many exceptions as it does valid scenarios – you shouldn’t automatically assume that newer recordings have “better” sound quality, and Pristine Audio are doing astonishingly wonderful work “restoring” older recordings to a sound quality that they even originally sometimes never had).

It is a sad reality that a poor quality recording makes it much harder to appreciate a good quality performance.  Just like the statement that a great meal benefits from eye-appeal and presentation as well as from the flavors of the food itself, so too does a great performance benefit from great audio quality.  (It is the same with video, too – the better the picture quality, the more involving the movie.)

With the wonderfully high quality sound distribution that we can offer you via internet streaming these days, the quality issue becomes even more relevant.  Back in the “bad old days” of distant AM stations, just being able to recognize a tune at all was sometimes a major achievement – I remember all the efforts I went in creating massive external antennas, antenna tuners, and special radio receivers, when I lived in New Zealand and was struggling, in the Hawkes Bay area, to receive AM signals from 150+ miles away.  But now that we can deliver near-CD quality to you, wherever you are, the underlying quality of the recordings we send to you are more noticeable.

Over-Abundance and Duplication

We are also getting multiple versions of the same pieces of music.  Certainly, we feel we should have two or three or four versions of most popular pieces of music – you don’t want to always hear the exact same recording of any given work.  But how many different versions is enough, and at what stage do we start to trespass into the concept of “too many”?

The answer to that question is “it depends”.  For a piece of music that you’re not likely to hear more than once every some months, maybe one or two versions is plenty.  But for some of our most popular pieces, which you might hear at least once every week (depending on how many hours a day you listen, and which hours you listen to), it is clearly better to have a broader selection of different versions.

Well, it is “better”, but is it essential?  Not so much.  Most of us, when not 100% focused on “forensic listening”, but instead have the music playing while we’re doing other things at the same time, are not likely to notice minor differences in phrasing or balance between different versions of a piece, especially if there is a week or more between each time we hear it.

I don’t know exactly, but I’ll guess we probably already have 20 or more versions of some of the really popular and shorter pieces here.  Do we really need to add a 21st version to what we already have in abundance?  You might think it is good to have as many different versions as possible, so as to have a semi-definitive collection of every recorded performance, and while there is some truth to that, we also need to consider the quality issues above.

If we have 20 versions of a piece, some are going to score much lower than others under either or both of the two quality issues.  Are we really doing you any favors by occasionally playing the worst of the 20 versions we have?  This is particularly a consideration for new listeners, tuning in for the first time.  If they hear a bad version of a piece of music, will they want to stay and continue listening?

What we will do is we’ll allow some versions of a piece to play more often than other versions of a piece.  So, coming back to the piece of music with 20 versions already, and with perhaps the “best” two or three versions playing ten or twenty times more often than the lowest quality versions, how often do the lowest quality versions ever play, and how often will you hear those?  Once every year or two?  Is there even any value in keeping the least desirable versions in our library?

That leads on to the next point.

Data Creation and Cataloging

It is relatively easy to “rip” a CD, that is, to convert the tracks on a CD to computer files.  But that very simple process is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the totality of what we need to do to catalog each computer file that we’ve created.  Whereas a popular piece of music typically has only four pieces of information – title, performer, album name, date of release – plus some other data too (record label, catalog number, track time, and other “behind the scenes” things), a typical piece of classical music has very much more.  For example, let’s think about the example we cited before, a Beethoven symphony.  We need to know some obvious things such as :

  • Composer Name
  • Musical Period
  • Name of the Musical Work
  • Name of the Part of the Musical Work
  • Orchestra Name
  • Conductor Name
  • Soloist names, if any
  • Choirs, choruses, other groups involved
  • Musical Style
  • Musical Type
  • Instruments and Voices featured
  • Date of Performance

And then a whole lot more beyond that, subjective rankings, in terms of the type of music it is.  Happy or sad?  Fast or slow?  Loud or quiet?  Good or not-so-good sound quality?  Good or not-so-good performance quality?  How popular is it?  And so on, and so on.

Summary

We need as much of this information as possible so as to make intelligent choices for how we present the music to you, and we need to focus on capturing the better versions of each piece of music in preference to less valuable versions.  In total, the more information we have, the better the sequence of musical pieces we can play.  For example, we’d probably not want to give you three pieces of Gregorian chant in a row!

We have been prioritizing the simple addition of as many tracks as possible to our library up until this point.  Now that we’re within reach of 50,000 tracks, it is becoming more important to prioritize, rank, and catalog our library so we can present this amazing abundance of music to you in the best way possible.  It is time to stop judging our progress by simple track-counts, and to move to more subjective measures of library quality.

Written by: David Rowell

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