Idagio aims to do for Gluck and Grieg what other platforms have done for Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande.

relates to This Berlin Startup Is Spotify for Classical Music Buffs
Photo illustration: 731 for Bloomberg Businessweek

The offices of Idagio GmbH have all the requisite tropes of a Berlin startup: A dog frolics in the airy industrial loft, tattooed employees park their bicycles along brick walls, and the kitchen is packed with snacks such as raw fennel and ginger. But the Steinway grand piano near the door betrays the mission of a company that moves to a soundtrack that’s more Yo-Yo Ma than Yo La Tengo: digital access to an art form that’s long remained proudly analog.

Idagio streams classical music, from Gregorian chants to the minimalist movements of Philip Glass. While the genre accounts for just 5 percent of the recorded music market, listeners tend to be affluent and loyal. But it requires an organizing structure unlike that of popular music, which is easily sorted by song, album, and artist. The classical catalog resembles a long list of cover tunes, with multiple orchestras performing the same pieces—something akin to countless, nearly identical recordings of every Beatles or Elvis song.

With so many versions of most compositions, consumers will search for Tchaikovsky using different metrics than they would for Taylor Swift: a specific orchestra or conductor, a long-forgotten recording, a favorite soloist. And the fan base might easily distinguish adagio from andante but is often clueless when it comes to apps and smartphones. “Our typical user will be somebody who asked his grandchildren to move his CD collection onto a hard drive,” says Till Janczukowicz, who co-founded Idagio in 2015 after two decades managing classical musicians.

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Janczukowicz. Photographer: Thorsten Jochim

In the casual environment of Berlin’s startup scene, Janczukowicz stands out with his slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair (vaguely reminiscent of Beethoven’s), polished Oxford brogues, gold wristwatch, and pocket square billowing from his blue blazer. Because of his decades working alongside musicians and orchestras, he says he wants to give artists a substantial share of the spoils—something many pop performers say streaming platforms don’t provide. So in contrast to the likes of Spotify, which registers a song as streamed only after 45 seconds, Idagio pays for every second a piece of music is transmitted.

Janczukowicz says his aha! moment came a few years ago in Salzburg, Austria, when he saw a man awkwardly pasting up posters for a classical concert—evidence that the industry had become outdated in reaching its target audience. In 2014 he sold his flat to fund his idea, then brought on Christoph Lange, a Berlin entrepreneur and digital savant who’d created a German streaming company that went bust. The pair spent a year looking for backers before persuading Australia’s Macquarie Group to put up some cash. After a second funding round that netted $25 million, the founders hold just over 10% of the shares. “Classical is a part of the market that big players struggle to adequately address,” says Jochen Gutbrod, a partner at Berlin venture capital firm Btov Partners AG, an early investor. “If you can own this niche, it has great potential because the genre resonates globally.”

Today Idagio has about 90 employees at its headquarters along a Berlin canal and a small outpost in Bratislava, Slovakia. The team has gathered tracks from 1,000 labels, manually writing in data such as composer, soloist, instruments, conductor, and studio or live. It now has more than 1.2 million recordings from 2,500 orchestras, 6,500 conductors, and 60,000 solo artists—all delivered in CD quality, the most complete collection of classical music offered for streaming. The service became available in the U.S. last year, and it’s increasingly popular in Japan, South Korea, Latin America, and other places where appreciating classical music is considered a hallmark of distinction by a growing middle class grasping for emblems of high culture.

The Idagio dashboard includes what the company calls a mood wheel that lets users pick modes ranging from optimistic (Brahms’s Symphony No. 1) to tragic (Mahler’s Seventh) to passionate (Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 2). The next challenge is creating a more immersive experience, with playlists curated by artists and critics, and video clips of musicians sharing stories of memorable recordings. “Classical musicians today need to be communicators if they want to remain relevant,” Janczukowicz says.

The app is still losing money, and the company is tiny when compared with the industry’s leaders. Janczukowicz says Idagio has been downloaded more than 1 million times, though he declines to say how many people pay the $9.99 monthly fee for full access. Spotify, by contrast, just hit 100 million paid subscribers. He’s not the only player in the field: A U.S.-Dutch rival called Primephonic was founded in 2017. And while symphony orchestras are mushrooming in China, many are wilting in places such as the U.S. and Germany. “The market needs a good classical music app, because neither Spotify nor Apple can credibly claim to serve that audience,” says Alice Enders, research director at media consultant Enders Analysis Ltd. “The challenge for Idagio is to convert the CD people, who are often very attached to their libraries.”

Janczukowicz says he doesn’t have an exit strategy and that the focus for the next few years is to enrich the platform: more podcasts, live sessions at Idagio’s Berlin loft, and working with promoters to quickly release recordings of concerts. Still, he admits it won’t be easy as a niche player with limited resources. “There’s a lot we want to achieve, but you can’t do it all overnight,” he says. “We have 25 engineers for the entire service. Spotify has 200 just for iOS. That gives you a sense of what we’re up against.”