Indie Classical Music? It Exists, And One Nashville Tech Startup Is Trying To Save It | Nashville Public Radio

Indie Classical Music? It Exists, And One Nashville Tech Startup Is Trying To Save It

Dec 3, 2015

A Nashville technology startup thinks it can help classical music flourish in the digital age.

Right now, flourish is not the word most people would use to describe the genre. Classical music only makes up 2.1 percent of all album sales and less than half a percent of all streams online, according to Nielsen data.

But the founders of Dart Music say there's no lack of modern musicians and composers. The problem, they say, is that those artists have extra barriers to selling their music online, barriers that Dart is trying to break down.

Messy Metadata

To figure out what Dart is trying to do, you first need to understand a concept that is central to digital music: metadata.

Metadata is the basic descriptive information that's attached to every digital audio file. On Spotify, for example, a typical rock song might have metadata like this:

Song name: We Used To Wait
Artist: Arcade Fire
Album: The Suburbs

But what about on a track like Beethoven's third symphony, which has dozens, if not hundreds, of unique recordings listed on Spotify? It gets more complicated.

For one thing, the song name — or in this case, the first movement of the symphony — is technically listed as this: Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, Op. 55 "Eroica”: I. Allegro con brio. A mislaid colon or abbreviation might mean your recording doesn't show up in the search.

Spotify also doesn't have a composer field in its metadata, so you'd have to list Beethoven (that's "Ludwig van Beethoven," by the way, with a lowercase v) as an artist. But the symphony that plays it might also be an artist, as might be the conductor, as might be a soloist. 

"And the thing is, in order to get into iTunes or Apple or Spotify, there's a specific way that they want to see that," says Chris McMurtry, Dart's CEO.

In iTunes' metadata style guide, an entire section is dedicated to explaining the proper way to tag classical music. It doesn't have that for any other genre. Plus, a lot of art music is translated from other languages. If you upload it incorrectly, people won't be able to find you.

“Everybody knows how to spell Beethoven," says Andy Doe, a digital music consultant. "But Rachmaninoff can be translated in a number of ways.”

To get the metadata right, he says, some digital distributors employ people to manually type it in. 

What all this confusion means is that independent art musicians who want to sell their work online have a harder time doing so than a typical rock band or singer-songwriter. McMurtry discovered this a few years ago, after he wrote his first chamber choir piece. He tried distributing it on TuneCore, which lets independent musicians sell their work on sites like iTunes and Amazon without giving up royalties, but he found that he couldn't upload under the "classical" genre.

Classical musicians can upload their work on TuneCore under the "instrumental" label, although TuneCore doesn't distribute classical music at all to iTunes. McMurtry says he wanted his music to be listed properly — it wasn't instrumental.

McMurtry then looked at some traditional classical music labels, but he didn't like that business model. “If they accepted us, it was going to be 20 to 35 to even 50 percent of our royalties, depending on the deal," he says. 

The Dart Idea

Thus, Dart Music was born — an automated distribution platform for independent classical artists.

This is how it works, or how it should work (it's still working through bugs): You, a classical musician, upload your music to Dart's website. Then the software asks you a series of questions, like, "What kind of piece is this?" and "Who contributed to this project?"

A screenshot from Dart Music's website

Say you performed a Beethoven string quartet. McMurtry says, the software could then cross-reference your work with others that are already known.

"These are all the string quartets that Beethoven composed," he says. "Which one is it?”

The final product: perfect metadata, tailored to each music-sharing site. It reduces the possibility of human error, says Doe, the digital music consultant.

"They're doing something that I've been saying somebody should do for years," he says. Doe used to work in iTunes' classical music division and then became chief operating officer of Naxos, a large classical music distributor whose American arm is based in Franklin.

"What Dart does that nobody else does really well is, instead of asking you for database fields, they ask you questions. And from that, [they] use the computer to do a lot of the heavy lifting.”

Outside Of Art Music

Dart's automation of metadata is something that could help other genres too, Doe says — even ones that are already pretty big.

"Very few people working in classical music realize that they share any distribution problems with hip-hop, but actually there are a lot of issues here — multiple sources of material, multiple songwriters, many guest artists on a single track," he says.

McMurtry, Dart's CEO, points out this could also be useful for the metadata on jazz recordings.

In fact, he says, half of Dart's clientele are not in classical. They just want to use the same software. But McMurtry insists that the company's focus will stay on that small slice of the music market, even if other genres come calling.

"It's awesome that we're helping classical and non-classical alike," he says. "But we believe in the future of art music."