Charles Petzold

Daffy “Times” Article on Amazon and Classical Music

March 19, 2007
New York, N.Y.

An article by Bob Tedeschi on page C4 of the Business section of today's New York Times (available online here) proclaims “Amazon Seeks to Fill Classical Recording Niche,” yet nothing in the article gives me any hope.

The article begins by noting how the closing of Tower Records has taken away a large retail source for people who buy classical CDs. But this schizoid piece gives no indication that Amazon is inclined to actually pursue that particular market. Instead, the article focuses on a new discount Blowout store that Amazon has opened that serves as "an introductory service to those who wish to build classical music collections but are not willing to spend large sums on a genre they know little about."

Music education is a fine thing, and Amazon should be commended for trying to get people interested in classical music. And the prices in the Blowout store (some as low as $2.98) are certainly enticing. But according to the article this Blowout store consists of only 2,000 CDs, which is a paltry amount. (I own half that number of classical CDs myself, and my collection is tiny compared to some.) Amazon claims an inventory of 100,000 classical titles, and yet Amazon's real problem is getting these titles onto the screen.

The Times article has a photo of Thomas May, the senior music editor at Amazon, and I kept waiting for Mr. May to say something honest and revealing, like "Amazon's current classical search engine is a total disaster," but he never does. If Amazon really wishes to pursue the classical CD market, that search engine should be high on the list of things that need immediate total revamping.

In years gone by, I would periodically send emails to Amazon about the horrors of their classical search engine, but nothing changed and it continued to be the same old piece of crap, so I gave up.

Let's take a little look at it, shall we?

Here's Amazon's advanced search page for music. Notice how the pop-music search is at the top of the page and the classical music search is further down the page, which is as clear an indication as anything how Amazon feels about the classical CD market.

Suppose you're searching for a recording of the Schubert Piano Concerto. In the Album/Work Titles(s) field enter Piano Concerto and in the Composer(s) field enter Schubert, and click Search Now. You are presented with 815 results, and the list is dominated with compilations: Totally worthless CDs such as Build Your Baby's Brain and Bride's Guide to Wedding Music and Classical Music for People Who Hate Classical Music (these are actual titles) litter the first page of these 815 hits.

People who listen to classical music do not normally buy compilations. Oh sure, occassionally there's a piano or lieder recital that might be interesting, but we normally tend to buy our CDs by composer. Yet every Amazon classical music search delivers a bunch of trashy compilations that shouldn't even show up at all in any well-designed search, or any respectable classical CD store.

In fact, if you're searching for a Schubert Piano Concerto, you shouldn't get anywhere close to 815 hits. You should get zero hits because Schubert never wrote a Piano Concerto. But change Schubert to Brahms and you still get 993 hits with way too many compilations and irrelevance. The top of the list today is The Essential Yo-Yo Ma, which is yet another compilation CD that does not, of course, contain either of the two Brahms piano concertos, but does have individual movements of a Brahms Piano Quartet and a Dvorak Cello Concerto, so those qualify as matches for Piano Concerto. (And no, putting "Piano Concerto" in quotation marks doesn't change a thing.)

Amazon's classical search engine has been like this for years and years, and they've shown no inclination to fix it. Many times I've gone to Amazon looking for something and given up in disgust. Unless you can drastically narrow down the search — supplying a label and catalog number sometimes does the trick — it just doesn't work. This search engine is the single greatest impediment to people buying classical CDs from Amazon. Period.

Amazon also has "Featured Composers" and "Featured Performers" links, but they don't let you narrow your selection in any significant way. And yet, this facility — if done right, and that's not easy — is far, far more valuable for classical CDs than a brain-dead search. But it can't be just "featured" composers and performers; it has to be everybody and it has to be extensive and complete.

One clear indication that the author of the Times article isn't familiar with the online classic CD market is that he doesn't even mention today's gold standard for online classical CDs — And what makes ArkivMusic so good? No, it's not their prices (alas). Nor is it their search engine. What makes ArkivMusic so good is an exquisite browse engine, seemingly specifically designed and hand-tweaked for classical music. From composer to composition to CD, it's all mouse clicking with no keyboard entry required.

In, you start by clicking Brahms, then Concertos, then either Concerto for Piano No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15 (which indicates 81 recordings) or Concerto for Piano No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 (103 recordings). Yes, the actual works are listed right on the screen! Clicking either Concerto delivers you to a screen where you can choose either a particular pianist or conductor or orchestra, or see the covers and contents of all the CDs listed. It's just like browsing through the bins in Tower Records except there are tons more recordings to choose from.

ArkivMusic's browse facility is designed so well that you know you're among friends at ArkivMusic — people who like this music as much as you do.

At ArkivMusic you don't feel like a part of some weirdo market niche. Instead, you feel love.

And that's something I haven't felt from Amazon in a long, long time.