But What If I Don’t Want To Buy Your Damn Music?!?

There’s a great article over at NewMusicBox by Jean Cook that examines her frustrations when dealing with the seemingly nonsensical way digital music providers handle classical music tracks. Undoubtedly, anyone who has spent much time dealing with iTunes and the lot would give Jean’s article a hearty "Amen!" but what I found really interesting were the comments. Frankly, I’m surprised there aren’t more comments from the wide variety of boutique classical music digital providers but at the time this article is published, there are only comments from representatives of Naxos and Chandos, both of which chime in with intriguing points along with plugs for their respective service. It is a great conversation but here’s the issue I have with most of the discussions surrounding classical music recordings and digital distribution: what about those of us who don’t want to buy it…

One of the biggest problems with advancements in classical music
digital distribution is it tends to be label-centric. Meaning, you can
download quite a bit from any one catalog but finding a place to
download tracks from a wide variety of labels from several decades
seems to be impossible. Simply put, I want to be able to select from
recordings by the big boys as much (ok, more frequently) than a
generic, quasi-slave-labor Eastern European group. That’s not a knock
against Eastern European groups (don’t worry Naxos, I love your
repertoire driven thinking) but merely recognizing a fact that there
isn’t any one stop shopping with first-class variety.

And then there’s the shopping. As mentioned above, what if you
don’t actually want to buy the music? Not long ago, on-demand music
streaming seemed neck and neck with music download sites with regard to
capturing the online market share. For years, I’ve been a subscriber to
MusicMatch Jukebox which was purchased by Yahoo who promptly screwed it
up (and is now discontinuing the service); all of which really gets me

I love streaming music. Really, I can’t understate that. I love streaming music. And let me get something straight; yes, I know iTunes has streaming music but it isn’t on-demand
streaming which means I can’t select what I want to listen to and
listen to it at any point in time 24/7. Being able to listen to
millions of songs from non-classical genres as well as a
not-too-terrible selection of classical music was a real treat. Even
though classical was a smaller piece of the pie with regard to
offerings, at least the selection featured a wide variety of ensembles.

It was fun being able to listen to entire movements back
to back from something recorded by Philadelphia and some Euro group
I’ve never heard of. Once, I remember pulling up 23 different
recordings of Carmina Burana just to listen to a few movements from each. Would I go out and buy 23 different recordings of Carmina Burana?
Not a chance. But I had no problem paying the $6.95/mo for access via
online streaming. Hell, I would be willing to pay more if the classical
music selection were larger.

Ultimately, I get disappointed when people talk about digital
music because no one seems to be outraged over the apparent loss of
on-demand streaming music. Instead, labels and distributors are herding
the cows that are listeners into the same old pen: buy it or nothing.
The whole topic gets me down and makes me frustrated but I will go to
my grave with the hope that one day, my dream of subscription based
on-demand digital music library with every classical music recording
known to mankind will one day be available.

I would love to hear what readers think and if anyone knows
about an on-demand streaming service, along the lines I’m talking
about, please chime in. However, let me give fair warning to any reps
from online music distributors: I don’t mind you writing in to plug
your service but add something to the discussion and be prepared for me
to (heavily) gripe about your service if it doesn’t fall within the
criteria above. However, if there’s anyone out there with as much music
as the old MuiscMatch Jukebox with 10 times the classical content at a
reasonable price (no, $1,000+ a year isn’t reasonable in my book), and
a classical-music friendly search engine, I’ll give you free
advertising at Adaptistration for a year.

<rant mode: off>

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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4 thoughts on “But What If I Don’t Want To Buy Your Damn Music?!?”

  1. Drew I’m so glad you wrote about this.
    As a student, I happen to get a free subscription to Naxos which I’ve found quite useful. If I’m in the library and don’t have my personal selection of music with me (two iPods which stopped working after their warranty expired) I can find anything I want to listen to. The novelty at first was fantastic since I could listen to 20th century works I was unfamiliar with and could not easily find recordings of. Audition excerpts were made easy to get tempos and I could compare interpretations of the major concerti.

    After a year of getting this service, I’m still constantly on Naxos (I can get it off campus as well) but generally with the big name artists they DO have current artists are non-existent(0 Joshua Bell, 1 Perlman) while older ones sometimes don’t work. (If it was released before 1960, for example Bruno Walter conducting Mahler 2 with NY Phil, you get a message: “Not available in the United States due to possible copyright restrictions” which strangely doesn’t always stop it from playing…)

    So for now being free to me (or $40,000 a year depending on how you look at ‘free’) I use Naxos but since I’ve built up such an addiction to the streaming way of life that I hope, like you, there is something offered for when I graduate where I can listen to fantastic (or even really really good) recordings whenever I want while I’m at a computer.

    If you also look at the non-classical side of the record industry, they seem to slowly be realizing that on-demand streaming seems to be a pretty good way to pull the P2P file sharers into the more legal side of listening to music.

    And now we have things like Qtrax (http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article3261591.ece) which allows you to download songs for free by the same model that NBC uses to allow you to watch episodes of the Office on their website the day after they air. While it has a lot of kinks, being the first always does, and its only genres to search right now are Rock, Pop, Hip Hop/Rap, and Soul/R&B, I don’t see why classical labels can’t jump on board as well, even if it isn’t download based. Just offer an obnoxious amount of advertising and people will probably put up with it.

    I hope this is all just a matter of time…

  2. I agree with Matt and Drew.

    By the way, I believe what Matt is talking about is the Naxos Music Library (NML) streaming service. This service is subscribed by most educational institutes and large libraries in North America, therefore the service is available to these respective patrons for free.

    The NML service is also available for individual subscription at as low as USD150.00 per year or USD15.00 per month.

    NML not only contains the entire catalogue of Naxos’ labels, but over 40 distributed labels by Naxos; including that of Chandos, BIS, etc.

    I believe NML has much of what Drew described as the dream “on-demand streaming service”, with the ability to create playlist, select any combination of tracks from any albums to play continuously.

    I do like the Naxos library but the major stumbling block there is a sincere lack of recordings by the big budget groups. For instance, do a search for Chicago Symphony and there are only 20 results; Baltimore: 7, Philly: 38, Cleveland: 21, NYPhil: 32, etc.

    when you compare that to the overall disc count of 23,800, those groups comprise negligible fraction of what’s available. At the same time, I don’t want to sound like I only want big budget groups, not at all. Naxos is a good start but there needs to be a one stop shop where I can stream on-demand recordings from a library that has a reasonable ratio of recordings from all sources.

    Another component to this is I don’t want online libraries to be so restricted to the categories they offer. One thing I enjoyed about MusicMatch is the wide variety of music available. personally, I can’t listen to most classical music while working, I find it distracting because I have trouble “turning off” the analytical part listening. As such, I listen to everything but classical during my working hours. ~ Drew McManus

  3. There is Passionato (http://www.passionato.com/) which just launched, covering quite a few labels, including Naxos, DG and Decca, amongst many others. Though this is download only site, not streaming.

    For streaming, I generally try Last.fm first, as they’re rapidly collecting the rights to stream tracks in full. Because of the issues with labelling files so they scrobble properly, it can sometimes be a bit of a challenge if you’re looking for a particular recording – but if you just want to hear the piece, it’s pretty good. I’ve heard some rumours about this aspect of their offering getting much better in the next year or so, but nothing definite I can share unfortunately.

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