Wednesday, February 15, 2012

CBC Music

When the CBC “revamped” its daytime programming in 2008, the move was almost universally panned among musicians and music lovers. The organization’s once proud and robust tradition of excellent classical and jazz programming was decimated, and excellent, dynamic radio hosts found themselves replaced by glorified DJs spinning an insipid lineup. No longer able to stomach this new programming, I found myself increasingly listening to my own classical iTunes library on shuffle or to online classical streaming radio stations. 

Although the CBC did have a few online streaming stations, they were quite limited and very broad. So I was pleased and surprised to see the CBC finally launch a digital music service on Monday, along with an iOS app: CBC Music

The new website and app have 40 different streaming channels, including 10 classical channels alone, and five jazz channels. For the last three afternoons, I’ve had the Baroque channel playing over my home stereo via the AirTunes link built into the iOS app (even after over a year of this feature’s release, I still find it somewhat magical to stream music from my iPod right to my stereo). It’s a testament to the quality of the music on the channel that I’ve only wanted to skip a couple of tracks so far. For the most part, the ensembles are all excellent, and there’s a decent variety. My only real complaint here is that it’s very heavily weighted toward instrumental music (in three days of listening, I have only heard one vocal track). In fact, I had assumed that it was instrumental only until I finally heard Karina Gauvin and Nicole Lemieux singing a Handel duet. I’m not sure why this should be, since there’s such a vast choice of vocal Baroque repertoire to choose from. Maybe it’s a licensing issue, but I hope they can change this. To be fair, the site seems to be in beta, which would indicate that they are still ironing out the bugs

I haven’t tried any of the other channels, but I’m very pleased with the Baroque channel. Every half an hour or so, there’s a promotional tag for the service, and this makes it less suitable for things like dinner parties, where it’s nice to have some music playing in the background. I have a few iTunes playlists I use for this, but I’d be happy to use CBC Music, especially since it means I get to listen to new music too, not just my guests. That said, I’ll admit that it’s a minor quibble for a free service.

The website itself works reasonably well, though I didn’t find it particularly intuitive to set up an account. Some of the social networking features either don’t work with Safari or Chrome (the two browsers I use), or they require you to enable popups. The CBC goes so far as to plead that these are problems with other sites such as Facebook, but frankly I find this a lame excuse. Even when I switched to FireFox to test it, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to enable the “Add to favourites” and “Share this track” buttons. And the “Add to playlist” button doesn’t seem to work, even though it isn’t greyed out. Kind of frustrating. Granted, it’s a new service, but I hope they squash these bugs soon. One nice thing is that you don’t have to create an account to use the service, though I believe you do have be have a Canadian IP address.

The iOS app does what it says on the box. It’s a very simple interface for surfing the various channels, and that’s about it. You can’t login to your CBC Music account, and you can’t use any of the social networking features (not that I seem to be able to use them on the website anyway). Which is all fine; I like simple. I imagine that a future update will add social networking features, and hopefully better implemented than on the website. 

I do have a few items on my wish list for both the site and the app. First, a “skip” button. There seems to be one on the site, but it’s greyed out. Not sure what that’s all about. But the only control on the iOS app is a volume slider. As I said, the music selection is really quite good, so a skip button isn’t essential, but it would be nice.

Another feature that’s lacking is a link to iTunes so that I can buy a track if I like it. I’m pretty sure this would be easy enough to implement, so I’m not sure what’s holding the CBC back. Even something as simple as “search for this song on the iTunes store” would be fine.

I also wish there was some sort of notification system for the app, so that when my iPod screen locks, I could have a notification appear showing the track information, rather than having to unlock the screen every time I hear a track for which I want to know the title or artist.

But these quibbles aside, I like the service and the app. I think I’ll use the app more often just because it’s easier to stream it to my home stereo, but either way, for the first time since “the change,” classical music lovers can go to the CBC and find great music whenever they like. CBC radio is still a disaster, but radio is a dying medium anyway.

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