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Downloading the Classics

I only now had time to sit down and investigate the new classical music downloading site trumpeted in a Wall Street Journal article last week. Classical Archives is a corollary to Arkiv Music: where the latter touted itself as a site selling CDs only, and has only recently bowed to the inevitable by including downloads, Classical Archives is embracing downloads from the get-go.

The Journal article spent a lot of time going into the meta-data issue that has plagued classical-music databases since before the dawn of iTunes. (I know about this all too well, since I spent a year working for an iTunes predecessor called MusicMaker.com, and much of my time was spent tormenting my staff of data-enterers in an effort to come up with some kind of uniform way of cataloguing classical music so that you could search for it and find it on a site set up principally for pop music, a quixotic endeavor. I wrote about it briefly when iTunes launched a few years later, in an article which, amusingly, I ended by dissing iTunes's usefulness for providing classical music to non-aficionados -- the very area in which the service has proven to excel.)

The database issue is old news by now: every new classical music site claims to have solved it, and they never quite have. By chance, the very first name I clicked on in the artist listings of Classical Archives was the late great contralto Louise Homer (I had been looking for Manfred Honeck, who isn't yet included), and "her" tracks include two takes of "Celeste Aida," the tenor aria from "Aida," because Homer also sang a duet from the opera with Enrico Caruso, so her name is linked to his on this recording in the database. (For the record, if you click on the album page the track is labeled correctly; I think it just lumped together all of the "Aida" listings from the recording, which is devoted to Caruso excerpts.)

This proved to be an unfair introduction, however, because the database is a lot of fun. Parts of it seem a little basic - like the introductions to the nine periods, from Medieval to Contemporary - into which the site divides its offerings; visually, too, it's clunky (and it took me a few minutes to figure out that you can click on the Album tab under a composer's or artist's name to get a better idea of what's on offer than the simple track listings may provide). But it is another source for classical music - not that it's exactly alone.

_________

There are, of course, free alternatives. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston announced this week that its ongoing podcast The Concert, which presents music from the museum's concert series at a rate of two new 45-minute episodes per month, just had its one millionth download.

By Anne Midgette  |  May 14, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  music on the Web , news  
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Comments

I took a quick look at their website. They claim to have more tracks available than any other site, and I'm in no position to dispute the claim, but they are nowhere near as comprehensive as the ArkivMusic site, which has far more music available on CD than its sibling has for download.

Some results of the quick look: Some Knussen, but not the violin concerto. No Easley Blackwood at all. Some Rubbra, but no symphonies. They managed to index Vaughan Williams under "V" (props to them for that one), but they only have five of the nine symphonies, and they indicate *20* tracks for the Fifth. The "London" isn't there at all.

The prices tend to be no better than the resales at Amazon. I don't think they have anything that isn't also currently available on CD from the manufacturer.

Obviously the utility of the site varies with the purchaser's needs. I don't need Beethoven; I need Knussen. I'm hoping that what we see is just a good start and that much more will be added over the coming months. Otherwise, I'm not sure they're offering anything that can't be approximated, if not exactly duplicated, elsewhere.

[If this post doesn't conform to the guidelines and is deleted (as was an earlier one discussing similar topics), I'd like to be told why. You have my e-mail address. Feel free to delete this bracketed paragraph, of course.]

Posted by: BobL | May 14, 2009 7:28 AM | Report abuse

Maybe I'm missing something, and if anyone has more info about this, please post it. The problem I have is that, when using iPod, the possibility of reading liner notes, lyrics or seeing recording-related photos seems non-existent. Why should an iPod user give up these things?
Another nice feature that should be implemented is seeing translations of foreign-language text as the recording is playing.

Posted by: kashe | May 14, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

Anne -- I clicked the hyperlink for The Concert, but just got an error message. Then, googled the name and got in OK. A wonderful addition to my bookmarks. Thanks!

Posted by: BethesdaFan | May 14, 2009 9:16 AM | Report abuse

Maybe I'm missing something, and if anyone has more info about this, please post it. The problem I have is that, when using iPod, the possibility of reading liner notes, lyrics or seeing recording-related photos seems non-existent. Why should an iPod user give up these things?
Another nice feature that should be implemented is seeing translations of foreign-language text as the recording is playing.

Posted by: kashe | May 14, 2009 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Here's where I sound-off like a naysayer...

If classical music download sites want to succeed, they need to do more than get the track tagging right. Especially as any dedicated downloader of classical music will be using one of many free and very powerful tools to correct dodgy tags.

The real issues are cost and quality. We're not going to pay physical CD prices for '1's and '0's - especially when we don't get so much as liner notes with many download purchases. And we're certainly not going to settle for MP3 files at 320kbps - unless there's really no other option. Give us FLAC, give us PDF liner notes, and slash prices to reflect what we're actually buying. Then you'll see the market boom.

(Incidentally, I say all this as someone who's a prolific downloader of music - I have over 1,500 releases in non-physical format.)

FK

Posted by: Kuhlau | May 14, 2009 9:36 AM | Report abuse

BobL - I've never deleted a post of yours, unless you were the spammer who tried to post soccer scores. And I don't edit the comments. Not sure what happened to your other post, but feel free to resend it.

kashe - You can read downloaded liner notes on your computer, but I do agree with you in principle. Classical music labels could generally be a lot more creative about presenting information in downloads, DVD supertitles, etc, but there's no money in this kind of creativity.

Hyperlink fixed: thanks for the heads-up.

Posted by: MidgetteA | May 14, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Ms. Midgette -- Thanks for the response. It's only because the deleted comment also had to do with downloads that I said anything. My apologies for the unfounded suspicions. Let's chalk the incident up to a technical glitch and move on.

But as long as I'm here, allow me to thank you for putting in the effort to conduct a blog and provide a refuge for those of us in the DC area (and elsewhere, if they care to join in) who delight in classical music. I hope the word spreads and the day comes when you have so many comments you'll need an assistant to monitor them

Posted by: BobL | May 14, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

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