I first wrote about this topic in 2010. A number of additional download stores specializing in classical music have come online since (or maybe they were online back then already and I’ve only discovered them now?), so I thought I’d provide an update.
As the major label music industry continues to undergo tectonic shifts and devastating upheavals, one simple fact is coming more and more clearly into focus: there is more, and better, recorded music available now than at any other time in the history of recorded music. Clearly, this is because artists are no longer being forced down the same limited number of canonical decision-making funnels (A&R at major labels)—and because digital recording and distribution technologies have become so affordable that independent labels can release products that are technically and artistically indistinguishable from major label releases (and in fact are often better). The ‘plight of the music industry’ narrative, as told by content producer associations, major media and legislators everywhere is about as one-sided as anyone can imagine. Independent labels, meanwhile, are continuing to grow by solidifying new approaches to distribution and pricing. One of the key drivers of this evolution is that independent labels can afford to be fearless when offering downloads. Instead of engaging in format and DRM wars, they go where the market suggests they go: to MP3 and FLAC, to high resolution audio (better than CD quality), to subscriptions and streaming, etc.
Here is an updated list of my favourite classical download stores, with brief descriptions, highlights and things to watch out for:
First up in the classical digital download offerings has to be Linn Records. Founded as an off-shoot of the Scottish high-end stereo manufacturer in the early 80s, Linn Records is a boutique audiophile label that is slowly emerging with a limited but excellent catalogue of classical recordings (as well as forays into jazz and singer/songwriter material). Linn also offers a limited selection of high resolution downloads from certain other labels via its online store. These include Channel Classics and Pentatone (however, only a few titles from each are available in Linn’s store, and a wider selection can be found elsewhere).
The audio quality of Linn’s own releases—there’s an interview with Linn’s chief producer/engineer, Calum Malcolm, here—is outstanding on every release. I’ve now bought and downloaded 320 kbps MP3 and FLAC versions of a number of releases, and everything is breathtakingly well recorded.
Linn offers its own Adobe Air based download manager application, which works very well. The only complaint I have is about the somewhat awkwardly done digital booklets (they are PDFs of the print versions, so the pages are out of order in the PDF) and poor MP3 metadata. This latter issue is somewhat inexcusable for a download store—and while I understand that my 320 kbps MP3s are at the low end of Linn’s offerings and price point, there really is no reason why I should have to spend 10 minutes after every download importing and re-working the metadata in iTunes to ensure that it’s complete and accurate.
Another excellent digital music seller is Hyperion Records. Hyperion is primarily known for its outstanding efforts in chamber music, Lieder and the pre-classical repertoire, but also has a wonderful ongoing series of “the Romantic Piano Concerto” which highlights the immense range of writing for keyboard in the 19th and early 20th century. Hyperion sells only its own releases. It’s worth noting that they offer discounts if you buy more than one title at a time.
Hyperion offers digital downloads either as VBR MP3s (targeting 320 kpbs—I’m not sure why they haven’t switched to a straight-up 320 kbps yet) or FLAC. Hyperion now also offers a download manager, and its metadata-labeling is superb—I have no completeness or accuracy concerns to report (sometimes, I notice there are ‘special characters’ in the metadata which certain software players or converters can choke on, but it’s a minor concern).
Cedille is a Chicago-based independent label with a limited but interesting roster of artists (the most notable soloist is Rachel Barton Pine, the violinist). It sells most of its releases as MP3s as well as standard resolution (16-bit) and high-res FLACs (24-bit). I purchased 2 articles from Cedille in FLAC format. The verdict is that the files themselves were of good quality but came without a PDF booklet. The metadata was sketchy—it seemed to be complete, but there were non-standard/’special’ characters in the file names and metadata fields that gave iTunes a little indigestion. The fact that this happens in almost every independent label download store should give labels pause. I imagine that repeat business is an important objective; yet the poor importing experience into iTunes and other players only serves to irritate users casual and experienced alike. My mom wouldn’t be able to find her music in iTunes if she could successfully import it, and I just get irritated by all the extra work I have to do. This should be an easy problem to fix.
Analekta is a Montreal-based independent classical label that offers its entire catalogue as a download option. Its website is a little too ‘high concept’ for my liking: some of the functionality is not as obvious to use as the usability engineer might have imagined—it’s all very visually appealing but somewhat non-standard as e-commerce goes. Analekta features such Canadian artists as the Gryphon Trio and Angèle Dubeau. Downloads are available as 320 kbps MP3s, “better than CD” FLACs, come as a simple zip file, and the metadata is quite good. PDF booklets are available for free from the product page as a separate download.
Classics Online is Naxos’ digital download store. It offers a fairly wide variety of labels in addition to Naxos itself, such as Brilliant, Chandos, CPO, Analekta, ATMA Classique, EMI Classics, Challenge, Opus 111, Signum Classics, Virgin Classics, etc. While I don’t know how completely each participating label’s catalogue is, the selection is much larger than Linn’s.
The majority of the material on Classics Online is available only as 320 kbps MP3 files, which may or may not be high enough for your purposes. However, a growing number of releases are also offered as FLACs. Classics Online has its own download manager which is straightforward to use and works well, but the site itself looks old-school and is unfortunately a little slow. As a result, it’s not a particularly engaging browsing experience—I find it useful as a comprehensive last resort of sorts: if I can’t find it anywhere else but don’t want to order the CD from Amazon, this is a good place to buy the music in 320 kbps MP3 format. I have found the metadata and accompanying digital booklets (in PDF format) lacking (in more than one case, the release didn’t come with a digital booklet at all, forcing me to ‘reconstruct’ the proper metadata in other ways).
eClassical is a Swedish download provider with a clean design and a good selection of labels. It appears to offer the entire BIS catalogue (BIS is the major Swedish independent classical label) as well as a curated selection of other labels (most are also available on Classics Online and iTunes). eClassical ‘pioneered’ the idea of per-second charging: you pay less for shorter tracks than longer ones. Realistically, this doesn’t strike me as having much of an impact in the classical arena where almost everyone buys complete albums, but it’s an interesting gimmick.
eClassical’s FLAC metadata was very good but I was disappointed not to receive a digital booklet with my download (I realize that the digital reseller is completely dependent on what the label provides; I suppose this is a call to labels to make more of an effort with standardizing their digital deliveries to resellers—a PDF version of the booklet shouldn’t be optional, particularly since metadata inaccuracies are still fairly common).
Lately, I’ve grown very fond of Qobuz, the French download store. The site is only available in French—so if your French isn’t good enough you’ll struggle to navigate it. But it’s quite wonderful in almost every way: it has an excellent selection of labels (including Harmonia Mundi, one of my favourite classical independents, which is not available elsewhere online) and a high proportion of high resolution offerings with a differentiated pricing model (typically, below €10 for MP3, €11.99 for CD-quality/FLAC and €14.99 for studio masters).
Qobuz is also very well merchandised, with an e-commerce engine that actively (and intelligently) markets to registered users. I’ve downloaded several albums from Qobuz now and have found theirs to be a pretty seamless buying experience. They offer a French-only download manager that’s reasonably easy to use, and booklets and metadata are quite good (of course, some of the metadata is in French too, so I had to re-work it a little—but that’s hardly a complaint). I used PayPal to pay for my purchases and noticed that Qobuz processes these transactions an hour or so after the purchase took place (just something to be aware of). Here is a handy guide on how to use Qobuz for non French speakers.
Finally, there’s a directory service for finding high resolution music downloads online at FindHDMusic.com. I’m not quite sure who maintains it, but it can be helpful in a pinch. One thing FindHDMusic highlights is how much music still isn’t available as a digital download in certain territories such as Canada, particularly from the major labels. For example, Universal’s various classical labels are not available in Canada—and foreign download stores that carry their catalogues are not allowed to sell them to customers in Canada. Qobuz, for instance, will tell you, “This article is not available in your country yet (CANADA).”
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After I had already published this post, my friend J.V. pointed out that Deutsche Grammophon also deserved credit for putting much of its catalogue online. I have to admit that I was unaware (thinking, in fact, that the geographic restrictions I mentioned above were the same regardless of vendor). Since DG has such a huge amount of desirable content (and pretty decent pricing—though certainly not aggressive—for FLACs) that I decided to give its download store a spin. The user experience is choppy at best because once you’ve added an item to your shopping cart, you are transferred to a generic Universal Music shopping cart. The PayPal transaction failed so I used my credit card; everything up to this point was fine. Unfortunately, DG/Universal does not offer a download manager, and it was just my bad luck to have spotted an attractively priced box set of the Hagen Quartett’s complete Mozart string quartets. Together, the 7 CDs are a weighty 2.2 GB download in FLAC format. DG, in its infinite wisdom, delivers this in a single, giant ZIP file. Needless to say, the transfer failed several times before it finally arrived intact. I spoke to a bewildered sounding customer service agent in the UK who had no particular insights to offer other than, “Keep trying—if you don’t come right, we can refund your money.” DG also did not include a PDF booklet, and its metadata is merely so-so. This store would benefit immensely from a ground-up re-working; the label’s repertoire is so amazing that a merely solid download store would put it in the first league of classical destinations online.