Classical music in the top ten of BBC Sounds music mixes


BBC Sounds today shared their quarterly top ten podcasts, downloads and on-demand requests for Q4 2021. Seeing classical music feature prominently in the Top Ten Music Mixes surprised me (in a good way).

It will no doubt be grist for Torygraph’s Ivan Hewett’s mill who last year bemoaned the growing number of curated music mixes on BBC Sounds as evidence of the dumbing down of a treasured art form at the hands of the cultural vandals the BBC currently has on its payroll.

Bad Jon. Behave.

I argued last year that curation on BBC Sounds was a listening experience offered to users who have come to expect similar from other streaming platforms. To offer such curated lists showed how the BBC digital types understood what needed to be done in order to be competitive.

That the ‘Mindful Mix’ (a list largely made up of similarly paced core repertoire and under-represented piano music interspersed with the occasional birdsong track) is high up in the list shows that BBC Sounds is delivering what its audience wants. It’s also what the wider audience wants – that’s why the likes of Classic FM and Scala Radio offer a similar product in their linear schedule (though Scala’s ‘In The Park’ never really reached as high in the fledgling classical station’s monthly streams as compared to Mark Kermode’s weekly Film Music love-in).

Mindful Mix from BBC Sounds like Classical Focus (also in the top ten list) isn’t especially original, but it shows the BBC catering for what the audience wants right now.

True to form the BBC is cagey about just how many downloads there are of any given programme, podcast or mix, revealing only the broad top-line figure of 364 million plays across the platform in Q4, 5.2 million of which were for all of the music mixes combined.

But where BBC Sounds undoubtedly succeeds compared to its rivals is its basic user experience.

Open the BBC Sounds App and search for the music mix in question and it comes up; select ‘Classical’ as genre, and the music mix is the first to be returned.

And, a quick test on my Alexa demonstrated BBC Sounds superiority over rival broadcasters offering similar content.

Call out ‘Alexa BBC Sounds’ and you’re prompted for a show title. Request ‘Mindful Mix’ and Alexa picks up where I left off in the bath listening (whilst I drafted this post). The transition between devices is smooth. And the listening experience I get in the end meets my expectations, also comprising some music with which I’m unfamiliar. The user experience is efficient, the listening experience strong on discovery.

Scala Radio in comparison needed me to call ‘Planet Radio’ in order to offer me the chance to call a ‘show’ and even then only after a lengthy announcement and an instruction to link my Planet Radio account. It said it would send me a link to do that (as Alexa clearly picked up on my irritation) but as yet it’s not arrived. That said, I was able to play Scala Radio live. Fortunately, it was piano music.

Users or listeners not familiar with the way Bauer Radio (Scala’s owner) is set up would have to be pretty committed to listening to any bonus curated content the station had to offer. Until Bauer sorts out what it calls its products then access comparable products is going to be (to coin an Alan Partridge phrase) a long and drawn-out affair.

Classic FM has an advantage over Scala Radio – its parent company is known a little better to me because I listen to LBC quite a bit. There was no extraneous announcement once I’d called up Global Player although Alexa struggled to recognise any of Global’s classical music playlists (Global’s equivalent to BBC Sounds Music Mixes).

So, the music mixes BBC Sounds are putting out work. They’re catering well for an on-demand audience. The content combined with an efficient user experience lacking in any flummery makes these mixes winners for me.

And, I imagine that over time rather like Netflix, BBC Sounds will start recommending things based on my listening preferences too. The challenge then becomes reinforcing in the mind of the new listener that they are actually listening to classical music and linking that-up to the idea of attending a live concert experience. Quite some challenge. Worth keeping an eye on.