Thomas Steffens tells us how Primephonic is offering streaming services to millions of expertise globally.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Thomas Steffens: Given the circumstances pretty well. My partner and I have not been ill so far. Working remotely from one day to the other was a big change, but the transition went surprisingly smoothly.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined Primephonic.
Thomas Steffens: Primephonic is only my second employer. My first employer was The Boston Consulting Group, where I worked on strategic advisory for more than 10 years. I have always been a classical music fan and still play the piano. At BCG, I also did pro bono advisory for classical institutions like The Royal Concertgebouw and The Dutch National Opera and Ballet.
I already listened to classical music several hours per day. I was always surprised how poor classical music was represented on Spotify. By coincidence, I met two other classical music fans who had similar experiences. We tried to better understand why the major streaming services had such a disappointing classical proposition: it was, and is, very difficult if not impossible to find the classical recording you are looking for, most recommendations are very mainstream, key album information was missing, and the audio quality was not good enough for delicate classical music and its discerning listeners.
We quickly understood that the root problem was in the metadata: these are much more complex for classical music than, for instance, for pop music. As a result, major streaming services would have to fundamentally change their data structure and search & recommendation algorithms to get classical music right. They were not willing to that.
That was a worrying conclusion. We are moving to a streaming-only world — a world without download stores, CD stores and less conventional radio channels. If classical music is poorly represented on the major streaming services, it will gradually lose relevance for the next generations. Classical music was facing a gradual digital death.
To prevent such a scenario, we decided to build a streaming service designed for classical music from scratch. With the largest classical catalogue in the world, available in the highest possible audio quality. With search and recommendation algorithms designed for classical music’s metadata complexity. And a streaming service that pays out classical artists fairly.
How does Primephonic innovate?
Thomas Steffens: We launch new features every month. From recommendations at composer level to an on-demand radio functionality and from digital CD booklets to artist podcasts. The starting point is always the user. Initially, we would ask them what is wrong with classical music on Spotify and then try to fix it. However, since we have fixed those all now, the next step is to ask users, ‘what feature would blow you away?’ and then we try to fix it.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Thomas Steffens: Like many digital companies, Primephonic’s growth has accelerated since the start of the pandemic. Many classical music fans miss live concerts: a seamless streaming experience is the closest substitute they can get. We also see many digital followers finally make the step into the digital space. Many of our new users were not streaming before; they were listening to CDs. Now they can enjoy all recordings of all classical works for less than half the price of a CD.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Thomas Steffens: My most important lesson is that the retention of good staff is key. Finding new staff and bringing them up to speed take so much time. So we invest a lot in a nice workplace, professional training, team outings, mental health, etc.
Second I have learnt how important the value is of a company purpose. The next generation does not care about pay and profit only. They want to contribute to something meaningful. I deeply believe that the arts and music in particular advance mankind. The arts teach us to better listen to others, to reconsider our initial point of view. In a time of increasing societal tensions, the arts can keep and brings us together. The arts also bring us creativity and sense for esthetics, skills no computer can ever replicate. In an era in which mankind increasingly competes with technology on the labour market, those skills increasingly become important.
Classical music still is the foundation of many other music genres. For instance, Sting, DJ Tiesto and even Take That were inspired by classical composers. To ensure that music at large can continue to enhance mankind, we deeply believe classical music must be preserved in the digital era. That is our purpose. And that motivates our team every day again.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Thomas Steffens: For many of our users, Primephonic is a key part of their daily routine. They love classical music deeply. That means the user feedback we get is never neutral. It is either euphoric (we literally have users telling us that ‘Primephonic is the best thing happened to me in 2020’ or ‘I want a subscription for life’) or the feedback is quite intense. Because our users love classical music so much, small mistakes do matter to them. I recall a user saying, “you have 482 recordings of the Goldberg Variations of Bach, but I miss this one”. In the end, we love that type of feedback as well, for it keeps us sharp to get closer to perfection every day again.
Second, we have learnt that not all our users are equally tech-savvy. Just offering great features like browse by instrument or liner notes is not enough. We need to explain to them how to use our many different features. Just an icon is not always enough. Therefore we organize every two-week webinars with sometimes more than 100 attendants in which we give demos of all the great features we have developed for them.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Thomas Steffens: As our revenue continues to rise quickly, we did not file for any grants
Your final thoughts?
Thomas Steffens: Many people like classical music but do not know much about it. For them, it can be an intimidating genre, where to start with so many composers, artists and difficult terminology? For these people, we have developed Ludwig. A 100% in-app beginner’s course in classical music. In 8 weeks, a mix of podcasts, playlists and anecdotes turns classical beginners into experts. A great way to educate yourself
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