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Apple's BIS acquisition is a bet on a classical music catalogue, and on building cred in the industry

Image Credits: woodleywonderworks (opens in a new window) / Flickr (opens in a new window) under a CC BY 2.0 (opens in a new window) license.

More than 80% of the music we listen to today is delivered over streaming, according to figures from last year. But when you look at classical music, it's been a stubborn hold-out, accounting for just a tiny fraction of that, with just 0.8% of streams (and that's in the stream-friendly market of the U.S.). Apple's bet is that this percentage will grow, though, and it wants a piece of that action. After launching its new classical music app earlier this year, Apple has taken its latest step into the space: BIS, a revered classical music label out of Sweden, announced today that it is joining the company.

The deal will bring a number of things to Apple.

First there is a small team, which founder Robert von Bahr today said in a note would be coming over and working within the same division as Apple Music Classical and Platoon (a creation and distribution platform Apple acquired years before).

It's also bringing the BIS critically-acclaimed present and future catalogue to the company: thousands of recordings of obscure works, well-known pieces in original interpretations, and everything in between. You used to be able to search and order from that catalogue on BIS's own site. Now, to get to it, you can search on Apple. (And, for now at least, you can also download from e-classical.)

One other thing that BIS is bringing is some weighty credibility to Apple and its classical endeavors.

The challenge to build a business and audience around classical streaming has been a long time in the making, not just for Apple and the wider industry.

Some of the shortfall in consumption will have been due to overall popularity of the medium -- Robert Schumann, and Clara for that matter, just don't pull in as many punters as Taylor Swift. But it's also been a challenge to translate recording metadata and discoverability into formats that work in the streaming medium.

For starters, you have composers, but also individual recording artists and ensembles; you have albums that can contain works from one of these, or a mix of them; works have movements and those don't follow standard conventions sometimes being numbered or named or ordered by the speed they are played at, which might be in a number of languages; and so on and so on. Those who listen to classic music tend to get very frustrated with that, and this is before considering the sound quality on a lot of streams.

Yes, some of that is gradually being improved. But even those with the deepest pockets and the most earnest of hopes have stumbled.

Apple is the world's most valuable tech company, and it really tried with its app to address some of this. But when Alex Ross, the chief music critic for The New Yorker, penned a review of the new Apple Music Classical app, the title said it all: "APPLE AGAIN FAILS TO SAVE CLASSICAL MUSIC."

Apple, for its part, has been chipping away at building a classical streaming experience for a while now.

In 2021, it acquired classical streaming specialist Primephonic. It then used Primephonic to launch, earlier this year, a whole new Apple Music Classical app experience. It also has built out high-end tools for listening to music, namely in the form of its hardware and audio software.

The BIS acquisition is not a classic tech deal, but it is a classical tech deal. The label has been going for 50 years, and in that time it has made a name for itself for making definitive and often pioneering recordings of works and of artists that might otherwise have been overlooked. It's ploughed a lot of time and thought into building relationships, as well as coming up with the best techniques for making those recordings.

"I don't care so much about the 'how', only the 'wow' that their expertise brings in CD after CD," founder Robert von Bahr said in an interview 20 years ago with MusicWeb. (Von Bahr is now 80, which in itself is something to call out and celebrate in a tech industry that has so often leaned on and celebrated youth and overlooked older people.)

"It is nice to be able to reproduce exactly what the musicians do, without having pre- and post-echoes or tape hiss to worry about... We are not closing the doors to anything, but we won't follow anything for gimmickry reasons. We will advocate - and use - systems that we feel make an appreciable difference to the discerning listener, but we will not compromise artistic quality or concentrate on anything but the music simply in order to be able to write some new numbers on the sleeve."

In his note today, Von Bahr noted that he was drawn to Apple's "fundamental belief in the importance of preserving audio quality," focusing specifically on innovations like Spatial Audio to expand on that future.

One thing that Apple does not seem to mind is that BIS is far from a blockbuster in the wider music business sense. Back before streaming took over the world, in 2003, Von Bahr talked of album sales of hundreds or even single-digits annually. Maybe those low numbers make for smaller laments over the death of record sales?

Yet even so, BIS and its founder have also thought a lot about the business model around how stakeholders have been paid for works. It turns out that the same complexities around all the different kinds of metadata also translates into a lot of business complexities.

"We do not pay flat fees, but try to form a partnership in the form of a goodly sized royalty portion for the artists," he said in the same interview. "This has several advantages: we are all getting paid from how the record sells, which in many cases is rather more than a flat fee would have been and, of course, we are able to do more daring programmes when the initial outlay isn't totally crippling." BIS employs producers, engineers, and other technicians to manage recordings, but the company has had its own experience with how to handle others in the ecosystem who would like a cut of sales, such as those who own the publishing rights -- interesting words considering how battles over this have continued into the world of streaming.

"The real stumbling block," he said, "is the exorbitant fees that some publishers, luckily not all, are asking for letting someone take a huge risk in recording works that they don't always know themselves that they have. Not being content with cashing a large part of the copyright fees that we pay upon selling the CD, they want to have a huge fee for sending the materials (scores and parts) to us for the recording, materials that often are in such a condition that the recording has to be postponed or even cancelled."

Apple, of course, by buying up a label, is shrinking the number of chairs around the negotiating table even more for the future.