From startup to successful sale in four years

Founded in 2017, by 2021 Primephonic boasted over three and a half million tracks, and was considered the world’s largest specialist library of classical music. It had become so successful that when Apple was looking to extend its music offering into classical music the obvious solution was to acquire Primephonic.

With that deal now completed, Simon Eder, Co-Founder of Primephonic and now Managing Director of award-winning classical music label Pentatone can look back, reflect on what led to Primephonic rapid growth and success, and offer advice to other founders on how to emulate his success.

Finding a core audience

“First and foremost, we found a real need,” he says. “Back in 2014 when we started exploring the idea of a classical music streaming service, classical was under-represented digitally. Shops where you could buy CDs were closing down and there was very little classical music on the existing streaming services. You could download music or buy CDs online but there was no curated place for classical music lovers to go.”

Primephonic launched initially as a download service with exceptional technology, and rapidly gained a devoted following among classical music lovers. But it was only really in 2017 that it took off, having added streaming, and addressed three key issues: pricing, the interface and lastly brand.

Pay-out and tech

“We needed to introduce a new approach to payout,” says Eder. “All other streaming services until then paid for each track you stream, but that doesn’t work for classical music where a whole album can be just three tracks. This creates a big value issue for the classical genre, where albums are often divided into albums with fewer tracks. While they hold the same amount of music minutes, the potential payout is lower. So, we launched our streaming service with a payout per streamed second model, which seemed the more accurate.”

He continues: “Another issue we needed to tackle was how to structure the meta data, which is significantly more complex in classical music than in pop. While pop songs have one version and then potential cover versions, you’ll almost always will find the ‘original’ recordings as the leading one.

In classical music there are no “original” recordings – music was composed far before it was possible to record it. So, it most cases its various artists, soloists, conductors interpreting the same piece of one composer and you’ll find in some cases several hundred different recordings of the same work or piece.  This meant we had to rethink how we display data and rethink algorithms that help users easily find what they want.”

These aspects were elements in Primephonic’s success, but Eder points to brand as a very important component.

From download speed to pure emotion

“Until 2017, when Primephonic was still a download store, we talked to people about technicalities,” he says. “We were rightly proud of the high-quality sound and resolution and saw them as the reason people would use our service. We had been targeting a very audiophile audience, who’s very tech-savvy. With launching the streaming service though we knew we had to rethink our approach. Communication which is too technical would have even scared streaming customers, which were less tech-savvy, but mainly interested in the classical discovery. Our Head of Marketing brought in an agency – Lantern - she’d worked with in a previous role, and the team there revolutionised how we talked about ourselves.”

He continues: “Lantern helped us defined our brand values. What do we stand for beyond high-quality sound? Is it about streaming or downloading, or don’t we stand for far more? After all, music formats will keep changing, but the promise we make to people should be more permanent. We realised it’s all about emotion. Music is after all pure emotion. This process helped us see that the way to reach new audiences – to democratise classical music – was to talk to people about how the music can make you feel.”

This brand work resulted in a set of assets that the company could use consistently but for Eder the main benefit was more verbal than visual. “All too often people see branding as about fonts and colours. In many companies branding is misunderstood and it’s reduced to the marketing team creating some flyers. This is to totally misunderstand and under-value it. Brand strategy is about understanding your story, getting clarity on the value you offer – it’s central to business strategy and success.”

A platform for success

And indeed, for Primephonic it did lead to success. With its technology, payout model and brand in place it was able to take its high-quality classical music experience to a far wider group of people, and ultimately to become the obvious acquisition choice for Apple in 2021.

For anyone looking to emulate that success, Eder concludes with two pieces of advice: “Stay focused. As you develop your products so many opportunities to diversify will come along, but most of them will be distractions. And lastly, look at brand early on. It’s a significant investment for growing companies, but if done well it can accelerate your development and provide the platform for your success.”