Audio quality fuels Classical rise

Naxos Records gave itself a twentieth birthday present with Classics Online, a new music download service. Audio files are DRM-free and thus playable on most any digital system. A number of catalogues are represented with more on the way.

Gramophone magazine gives the site a thumbs-up review and says its prices compare with The Classical Shop offered by Chandos.

Endeavours like Classics Online are becoming more common thanks to the upsurge of interest in downloadable classics. The rise is fueled by formats that accommodate the needs of audiophiles beyond what the MP3 norm has provided until recently. Brian Wise reports on these developments in a recent issue of the Christian Science Monitor:

When Amazon.com recently joined the push to sell digital downloads without copy protection, the implications were particularly meaningful to classical-music fans. By removing the layer of software known as digital rights management, or DRM, customers can not only play their music on any device they choose (PCs, Macs, and iPods), but they also may stand to benefit from improved sound quality.

Even with copy protection, classical music has surprised many doomsayers with its robust sales over the past year. On Apple's iTunes, which controls over 70 percent of the digital market, classical purchases account for 12 percent of sales, four times its share of the CD market. Last year, classical was the industry's fastest-growing musical genre, despite the closing of Tower Records, which represented 30 percent of the total classical market share (this bump was partly due to popular crossover acts such as the Italian crooner Andrea Bocelli and the operatic boy band Il Divo). Industry figures are hopeful that dropping copy protection – thus allowing for big, clear-sounding and noncompressed audio files – will generate even stronger interest in classical downloads.

"It will definitely draw more classical listeners to the download," says Mark Forlow, the vice president of EMI Classics US, whose catalogue includes such artists as conductor Simon Rattle and violinist Maxim Vengerov as well as historical recordings by soprano Maria Callas and cellist Jacqueline Du Pré. "For as long as recorded sound has been in existence, the people who buy classical music like to have the best sound."

A week prior to Amazon's decision, EMI announced it would become the first major label to drop DRM from its iTunes catalogue starting later this month. Mr. Forlow believes there is a strong demand for DRM-free music even though it will come at a premium cost of $1.29, which is $0.30 more than iTunes's usual $.99 rate.

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Similarly, the Philadelphia Orchestra sells downloads of its performances both as traditional MP3s as well as noncompressed FLAC files, which feature double the encoding rate. Christopher Amos, the orchestra's director of electronic media, says that about half of all sales are in the FLAC format. "We're dealing with a very sophisticated audience," he says. "We've had a lot of traction with specialists."

Wise notes that classical enthusiasts do not appear ready to abandon the CD format any time soon, though, owing to advantages the CD format retains in audio quality, documentation, and versatility of use. Those who are already using portable music players will find the new developments congenial, though, as will adventurous music lovers who are already downloading music of other genres.

Brian Wise. 'A digital boon for classical music.'
Christian Science Monitor, 2007.06.01.


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