Dart Music Launches Distribution Service Geared for Classical Musicians and Their Unique Metadata

AP Photo/Desmond Boylan
Members of the Minnesota Orchestra, and Music Director Osmo Vanska of Finland, center, acknowledge applause during a concert in Havana, Cuba, Friday, May 15, 2015. The Minnesota Orchestra will offer two concerts in Havana and is the first major U.S. orchestra to play in Cuba since 1999. 

The flat-fee distributor has raised $1.5 million to address the industry's shortcomings in classical metadata.

One might wonder if the classical genre is big enough for its own digital distributor. "It absolutely is," Dart Music CEO Chris McMurtry tells Billboard.

Investors agree. Dart has raised $1.5 million to take advantage of a quirk -- some might call it a shortcoming -- in digital music: metadata (the information that describes data) is typically geared toward popular music but not classical music. As a result, independent classical musicians don't have the same opportunities as their peers in pop, rock, hip hop and other popular genres. That money came through the exposure Dart received through Project Music, a music-focused startup accelerator at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center backed by the Country Music Association, YouTube and Launch Tennessee.

Think of Dart as a TuneCore for classical music. Its pricing scheme borrows from the flat-fee model established by TuneCore: annual rates of $20 for a single and $40 for an album and pays artists 100 percent of royalties received. To spread the word of its September 25 launch, the company is giving away 12 months of free distribution to new registrants through the end of October.

McMurtry, a classical composer himself, explains he would pay less through independent-focused distributor like TuneCore or CD Baby than the likes of Naxos of America and Hamonia Mundi. But TuneCore doesn't distribute the classical genre to iTunes (it doesn't have the interface to add the extra information involved with classical music) and CD Baby -- McMurtry has been a customer for over 15 years -- "is able to handle some classical metadata."

Classical music faces unique metadata problems. Distributors and services typically focus metadata fields like artist, song title and album. That's fine for popular music but problematic for a genre with composers, orchestra, soloists, compositions and movements. That makes searching for desired music a less-than-enjoyable experience for classical music enthusiasts. In a July article about this metadata problem, NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas lamented that "classical music remains distant and inaccessible."

Within industry circles it's well known that metadata -- or descriptive information about recordings and compositions -- is currently a limitation that prevents digital music from reaching its full potential. Artists and rights holders can't be properly paid if digital services and performing rights organizations don't have full, accurate metadata. Similarly, digital services can't properly pay royalties without accurate metadata.

Beyond royalty payments, metadata problems extend to information about the recording. Who was the producer? Where was it recorded? Who were the session musicians? What instruments were used? This information would augment basic metadata and create new ways to link recordings. Want a playlist with tracks on which Nashville session musician Paul Franklin played pedal steel? As of today it's not possible.

There have been efforts to fix these problems. Over the last few years, Music Biz, the music industry trade organization, has been holding metadata summits and released a metadata style guide to provide standards for naming and managing digital music. And efforts are underway -- albeit without much discernable progress -- to create a global music registry. The U.S. Copyright Office's report on music licensing released in February recommended such a registry be created by private actors. 

Non-classical musicians and labels can distribute their music through Dart, but the company is really a bet that classical metadata is a problem worthy of being fixed. "At our core, Dart is a music metadata company," says McMurtry. "We pride ourselves on creating the best music metadata in the world."