(cross-posted to Bits of News)
Yesterday saw the opening of a new mp3 store, dedicated to recordings on the renowned Deutsche Grammophon label. With one of the most prestigious labels of all now joining the action, is digital the best future for the classics?
Classical music has been one of the surprise success stories of the recent boom in digital music sales. Shortly after launching, Amazon.com’s new mp3 store featured Richard Wagner charting higher than Coldplay, Kanye West and Amy Winehouse – although this may have had something to with Clemens Krauss’s recording of the complete Ring cycle (14 CDs-worth) appearing briefly on sale for a meager $13.98 (it was later repriced to $53.99). Yet even with such anomalies, the evidence emerging from iTunes and other stores is that classical is taking to the web like a surprisingly aquatic cat to water.
One of the genre’s big advantages is that, measured in sheer quantity of bytes to the buck, classical mp3s are often extremely good value for money. In the physical world, a CD is a CD and they’re all priced roughly the same. But in the virtual world, business models that charge 99 cents or pence per track are worked out on the 3-minute pop song standard, with 10–15 tracks to an album. Turn to classical, however, and you could pick up three Mahler Symphonies for the price of one chart LP. Or an entire day’s worth of Morton Feldman.
Despite this, classical may also be the musical niche most poorly served by current retail practices. For one thing, many retailers are beginning to introduce graded pay schemes whereby tracks over a certain length, say, can only be bought as part of the complete album. So those 99 cent Terry Riley and Philip Glass epics may soon be a thing of the past (snap them up while you can). Classical music – jazz, too – also tends to come with much more subsidiary information than your average pop song. Not only is the composer’s name important, but also those of the artists performing on the recording. A year of composition is handy too, as may be a year of issue – for distinguishing one Karajan Beethoven from another. And tracks and albums don’t always come with helpful titles, and neither are they consistently tagged by the record labels – an iTunes window of dozens of ‘First movement’s isn’t much use to anyone. This has knock-on effects when trying to search for recordings to buy, as inconsistent metadata is little better than none at all. Most retailers don’t have an option to browse by label – essential for serious music diggers – but some, such as eMusic and Classicsonline, do.
More seriously, pop music is mostly composed, recorded and produced with tinny radios, headphones and, now, mobile phone speakers in mind. It’s sonically robust enough to survive mp3 compression to the extent employed by most retailers. Classical music, however, is written for live listening – the highest fidelity of all – and doesn’t fare so well at 192kbps or lower.
Deutsche Grammophon’s service immediately stands out, then. Not only do most of their albums come with pdf copies of the sleevenotes – another valuable aspect of the classical music experience – but all tracks are available (DRM-free) at a premium quality 320kbps. Their CD back catalogue is also one of the most desirable in the business, and all of it is available for download. In comparison to other retailers, DG isn’t cheap, but in many other important respects it’s already beating the competition. Classical music lovers will hope that others take note.
Edit (7 Dec): Bernhard Warner in the Times agrees.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the more enlightened online music retail models — one that emphasises music quality, choice and expert advice – emerges in the classical music genre. As evidenced by all the newsgroups and niche sites catering to this market segment, these consumers are fervent followers of the genre. They have long been neglected on the high street, where shrinking shelf space and a slacker sales staff conspire to frustrate even the most straightforward sales query.
For their years of suffering, a high-fidelity, DRM-free, multi-national download store is a just reward.