Where classical music and iPhone apps converge

Apple has a well-earned reputation for fulfilling customer desires on its own timetable. The disharmony around the App Store is hardly the first time Apple sounded off-key to its fans. Consider the flat note that the iTunes Music Store struck with classical music fans early on.

The parallel between classical fans and iPhone users feels apt. Classical music aficionados are a peculiar and particular breed. iPhone users are particular, too. Each has specialized needs and certain expectations. But Apple has come a long way with classical music lovers.

Not long after the iTunes Music Store launched, I wrote a story for Macworld about how Apple was giving classical music fans the high hat. The indictment then wasn’t so different from the complaints about the App Store now: “Illogically labeled albums, mislabeled tracks, and inconsistently listed artists are the standard,” was how one disgruntled user summed up the store.

Then as now, Apple wasn’t forthcoming with its plans for the iTunes Music Store. When I tried to get a company spokesperson to discuss Apple’s plans for the store, even in general terms, I hit a stonewall.

But results do matter, and nobody can dispute Apple’s dominance of the online music market. Although iTunes has never quite gotten classical music right, five years on iTMS’s classical section looks vastly better than that of most any traditional brick-and-mortar store. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Apple has gone far to fill the void left by late, lamented retailers like Tower Records, which for decades ran classical music annexes in New York, L.A. and San Francisco.

Fact is, Apple has steadily improved the classical (and jazz) sections of the store. The company imposed order on the chaos, making listings more accurate. Searching and browsing is much improved. Users can browse by subgenre - contemporary, orchestral, piano, opera, etc.

Where five years ago recordings of major composers such as Beethoven and Mahler numbered in dozens, today they number in the hundreds. Most of the major classical recording companies are represented, with new releases from Decca, EMI and Deutsche Grammophon featured, and an impressive array of independent music. Apple made a deal with Naxos, perhaps the largest independent classical label in the world, to carry its huge and diverse catalogue of recordings.

Classical music fans might grouse from time to time about the limits of iTunes. But there’s no denying that Apple has taken the aficionados’ complaints seriously. That’s good news for iPhone users and App Store customers. Take heart. Apple will get there. Eventually.

Ben Boychuk is a freelance writer and syndicated columnist who lives in southern California.

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