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Classical music downloading: and now for something completely different
October 12, 2008, 9:06 AM
by Scott Foglesong, S.F. Classical Music Examiner

Over the course of several articles, I've been examining the state of classical music download sites. In one article, I put the iTunes Store and the Zune Marketplace into a smackdown, which turned out to be a near-total loss for Zune. In another article, I chose a specific set of albums and looked at a variety of sites; in that competition, Amazon and iTunes came out on top, with the much-maligned (by me, anyway) Zune coming in respectably.

It occurs to me that both research projects were a bit one-sided in that I focused on specific recordings – i.e., a specific work played by a specific performer, even on a specific label. This meant that some sites, especially those relying heavy on independent labels, were by necessity at a distinct disadvantage.

The Test

So I've decided on another test, which I hope will complement the previous. This time around, instead of looking for specific recordings, I'm looking for specific works only. That's the way a lot of people shop online, anyway: folks aren't necessarily looking for Dr. Heinrich Schmutzig's 1964 recording of the Hammerklavier; they're just looking for a recording of Beethoven Sonata Op. 106, so that's what I'll look for, too.

The Pieces

I made up a largish list, with the intent of touching as many bases as possible, from mainstream to slightly obscure: a Beethoven symphony, solo piano music, a medium-profile opera, some contemporary music, even a well-known early music work. I've avoided stuff that's really obscure; this is about 'typical' shoppers, not gimlet-eyed specialists. Here's the list:

  • Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcellae
  • Dittersdorf: Symphonies on Ovid's Metamorphoses (any or all)
  • Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A
  • Schumann: Symphony No. 1 "Spring"
  • Brahms: Fantasien, Op. 116
  • Verdi: Macbeth
  • Glazunov: Violin Concerto in A
  • Bartók: Cantata Profana
  • Messiaen: Poèmes pour mi (either version)
  • Copland: Quiet City

The Vendors (download sites only; no streaming)

The Rules

For each instance of a piece that I found, I awarded 5 points. I didn't concern myself whether a particular piece/performance was a duplicate of another on the same site, such as can happen when specific recordings are reissued in collections, retrospectives, etc.

I subtracted 1 point per instance for each of the following:

  • DRM protection
  • Low bit rate (less than 256)
  • Difficulty searching, 2 points if it was really horrible. That includes being bombarded by false positives or multiple instances of the exact same album.

A Few Preliminary Remarks

I avoided fancy or overly persistent searching. If I couldn't find the Brahms piano pieces after a few different search strings ("Brahms 116", "Brahms Fantasien") I stopped. Certain sites work better searching for composer, then genre, so I'd do that as well. I hoped to give each site a reasonable workout, without getting all professional about it, in an attempt to duplicate the mindset of the mythical 'average' customer. This also means that I may have missed the occasional album.

I did not penalize any vendor for the cockamamie U.S. copyright laws, which restrict some recordings to non-U.S. customers.

I didn't take issues like lossless files or high-definition into consideration, given their relative scarcity in the scheme of things right now. Nor did I worry about gapless playback; I've done some experimenting about that and found it to be a non-issue these days with downloaded files. (I'll post my study at some future date.)

Finally, I wasn't particularly concerned about formats: mp3, AAC, WMA are the most common, although some stores might offer FLAC or even pure uncompressed audio.

The Winners' Circle

Pride of place (in order) goes to iTunes Store, Amazon, and ClassicsOnline. All three vendors came through with multiple choices of each piece on the list, and all three vendors offer a quick, effortless search experience. (Interestingly enough, those are the stores I patronize as a rule; I guess I've known instinctively what was right for me.) A few remarks about each:

  • iTunes Store would have scored much more highly than it did without the number of DRM-pestered and low bitrate files that continue to plague this monarch of download sites. Had the iTunes Store offered 100% "iTunes Plus" files (no DRM, higher audio quality) there simply would have been no competition at all at the high end, but Apple lost a lot of points over those low bitrate and DRM files. (Potential score: 950, but 791 after penalties.)

    Once in a while, a recording on iTunes is shockingly more expensive than the same exact recording on other sites.
  • Amazon sports a dazzling search engine that is remarkably free of false positives. The store's consistency (same bitrate throughout, never any DRM) and intelligent layout are truly outstanding. Both iTunes ('iTunes Plus' files) and ClassicsOnline offer higher bitrates, however, so comparison shopping on the price/bitrate axis is a good idea.
  • ClassicsOnline is a gracious, friendly store with an excellent search engine and a deep catalog. Although it doesn't offer major-label items, generally it makes up for that by an impressive array of recordings from alternate sources. ClassicsOnline has been significantly affected by the U.S. copyright law — some of that tempting stuff is out of reach for U.S. residents — but that is certainly no fault of the store.
The Ring of Shame

Neither TheClassicalShop nor Zune Marketplace wound up in the basement score-wise, but neither is a store I would willingly patronize.

TheClassicalShop suffers from slow operation, searches turning up more false positives than true, and confusing duplicated instances of individual albums, while the Zune Marketplace is a washout due to its classical-music ignorance, clunky searching, fragmentary descriptive labels, and mediocre catalog.

Audiophile site LinnRecords managed to distinguish itself by being the only shop on the list to score a perfect zero across the board: not one single hit. A record store without a single copy of the Beethoven Seventh: food for contemplation, indeed. To their credit, Linn's recordings are exemplary quality sound-wise, but overall, audio quality, rather than repertory, appears to be the primary raison d'être for the site.

The Tallies

The first table gives you just the final score for each service — 5 points for each hit, minus points for negatives.

ITunes 791
Amazon 645
ClassicsOnline 345
eMusic 271
ClassicalAndJazz 122
DG 115
ClassicalShop 104 93
Zune Marketplace 81
eClassical 37
HDTracks 15
CDBaby 5
Linn 0

This second table shows you the scores for each of the compositions (each is identified by the first three letters of the composer's name.)

  Totals Pal Dit Bee Sch Bra Ver Gla Bar Mes Cop
ITunes 791 31 11 354 83 80 28 92 15 9 88
Amazon 645 20 15 275 125 45 30 85 10 15 25
ClassicsOnline 345 20 15 100 55 40 10 50 15 10 30
eMusic 271 15 15 99 50 20 12 40 5 10 5
ClassicalAndJazz 122 0 0 8 44 5 10 15 10 5 25
DG 115 5 0 40 15 10 5 10 10 5 15
ClassicalShop 104 4 5 40 12 8 0 25 0 5 5 93 5 0 63 0 15 0 5 0 0 5
Zune Marketplace 81 0 5 4 12 8 10 30 0 0 12
eClassical 37 0 0 12 10 0 0 5 0 10 0
HDTracks 15 0 0 5 0 5 0 0 0 5 0
CDBaby 5 0 0 0 0 5 0 0 0 0 0
Linn 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

I also have full tally sheets for each of the individual pieces involved, but that's way too much to put here on the blog. FYI, I offer the sample sheet for the Beethoven 7th Symphony — the final score is the TotPoints column (number of Albums times 5 = Points) with the sum of "Negatives" (DRM, low bitrate, search) subtracted:

  Totals Points Albums Points DRM Sub-256 Search Negatives
Amazon 275 55 275       0
CDBaby 0 0 0       0 63 21 105 21 21   42
ClassicalShop 40 10 50     10 10
ClassicalAndJazz 8 2 10     2 2
ClassicsOnline 100 20 100       0
DG 40 8 40       0
eClassical 12 3 15     3 3
eMusic 99 22 110   11   11
HDTracks 5 1 5       0
ITunes 354 96 480 63 63   126
Linn 0 0 0       0
Zune Marketplace 4 2 10   2 4 6

If you're interested, all of the tallies are available in PDF format. You may view the PDF by clicking here, or if you right-click the link and select "Download Linked File" (or the equivalent), you may download a copy to keep.


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