“A first symphony by nature is most of the time a collection of earlier ideas,” said composer, conductor, and Music Director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra Iván Fischer on a live-stream from his house. Wearing a blue cardigan he sat in his window-lit living room guiding viewers through Austro-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler’s first symphony. Like an eager professor, Fischer explained how this symphony contains traces of Mahler’s earlier songs, observations of nature, and his life experiences as a Jewish man living in 19th-century Vienna.
“He wants to write something about the awakening of nature so it has to start from nowhere,” Fisher said before turning to his piano and striking the note a. If you look carefully you can see his dog sitting by his feet as he plays snippets of the symphony.
The live-video stream is one of a new series at the classical music-only music streaming service Idagio. And part of the company’s larger mission to make hundreds of years of classical music and history accessible to the world.
Since launching in 2015 from Berlin, the Idagio app has been downloaded over a million times with subscribers in over 180 countries. The app was completely designed with classical music aficionados in mind and has evidently struck a chord with many even bringing some once drifted fans back to the genre.
Over the past decade streaming has changed the way people listen to music. But for classical music fans the switch to streaming hasn’t been very user-friendly. Before Idagio, streaming classical music was an arduous experience and it was all due to metadata—the tags used to catalogue tracks on streaming platforms.
All the major streaming services categorize their music by song, artist, and album; which works for most genres. For classical, it’s not nearly enough.
Any single recording of classical music track can have a composer, work, movement, conductor, orchestra, and soloist associated with it. Without the propel labels, it is almost impossible to find exactly what you’re looking for and compare different recordings of the same piece.
If you are a long-time fan like our very own Chief Storyteller Lisa Shufro, who has a degree in music from Yale, you understand that not all interpretations are equal. She compares listening to your favorite musical interpretation to seeing your favorite professional athlete score in a game. There’s something unique about the way each one does it. On other streaming services, she notes, finding your favorite performance is a game of roulette: there is no guarantee you’ll find a version of a piece that you’ll enjoy.
“Because classical is different, it requires a different approach,” says Idagio co-founder Christoph Lange. “And therefore, requires a different product.”
Not only does Idagio include all the relevant metadata tags, it offers high-quality streaming, 900 exclusives, and expertly curated playlists. It also has a mood ring feature that allows users—like me without much knowledge about classical music—to discover new music by selecting from a variety of moods like relaxed, optimistic, and melancholic.
By staying committed to their mission, mindful of their audience’s needs, and willing to experiment they have been able to provide a viable alternative to the established giants in the industry.
An all-in approach
There are three main prongs to Idagio’s mission of making classical music accessible: aggregating content, easy navigation, and curation. The first two are about making it effortless for people to find the music they want to hear. Curation is about helping users enjoy and be inspired by the music regardless of previous experience or knowledge. Together the three pillars, as Lange puts it, recreates the record store experience online.
But they noticed there was a barrier that kept a wider audience from experiencing the app, price. Last year at an offsite they decided it was time to introduce a free tier to their service. So, they crafted an OKR: give the world free access to classical music by September 30. From there they had to articulate what exactly it meant to give people free access to their catalog.
The key results included what each team was responsible for completing to reach the objective. The product team had to build the user experience. The legal team had to secure licenses. And the communications team had to plan for the product launch. Each team understood the goal and planned accordingly.
“We’re not trying to build a perfect free tier, but we want to make sure we get out with something that gives people that acces and is good enough that we can build upon that,” said Lange.
Internally, they reached their goal in September. A month and a half later on November 19, they launched Idagio Free to the public.
“That was clearly something we pulled off in a very short timeframe that would not have been possible if this was some kind of ‘yeah we’re doing a bit of freemium but we’re not really sure yet,’” said Lange.
They were able to reach their goal because they collectively committed to get it done by a specific deadline instead of doing it incrementally. The clearness of the goal also helped build a sense of camaraderie across the company’s various departments.
“It was a challenging time but also very inspiring because you could actually feel that everyone is on the same page,” said former Communications Director Birgit Gehring. “Everyone knew it was about freemium and getting it done and out into the world. It was motivating.”
Perfection vs Iteration
Not all ideas at Idagio become successful product features, but they all are used as learning opportunities. For example, in the past they tried to integrate artists’ social media feeds into the app, but it ultimately felt out of place and wasn’t used much. They also scrapped plans to produce original video content, which they found wasn’t worth the investment. Even internally, they’ve experimented with how best to present OKRs.
Idagio Live is just the latest of these experiments. If Idagio is the virtual record store for classical music, Live is a space for fireside chats with experts of the genre. The idea was to organically connect the audience Idagio has cultivated with the very people who know the music the best—the artists.
Seemingly the whole world of classical music is coming to Idagio to share their expertise with its users. Since launching in April they’ve had live’s with American baritone Thomas Hampson, Australian flutist Ana de la Vega, French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, and much more.
The plan had been in the works for a while, but with the pandemic making live-streams and video chats commonplace now seemed like a good time as any to finally try it out. Admittedly, there are still some hiccups to smooth out. But like with Idagio Free, their approach is to get it out the door first and then iterate from there. As they see what works from this experiment, they’ll make adjustments and introduce new formats.
With a fraction of the resources, Idagio has built an experience that rivals any streaming service. Lange says their secret weapon is their size and passion which allows them to react and move faster than its competitors.
“If you want to listen to classical music, we can build a better product for that, despite the fact Spotify has—I don’t know—hundreds of engineers and we have 16,” said Lange.
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