Naxos Blankets the Internet

Now that more and more music lovers are turning to the Internet to purchase CDs, DVDs, and downloadable files#151;see WP's story on iTunes this week—Naxos isn't taking any chances. The world's largest classical music label, whose US branch, Naxos of America, also claims to be the #1 independent distributor of classical music in the US, has recently set up multiple websites to lure music lovers into the fold.

In the cyberland of the red, white, and blue, Naxos of America has established its own online boutique, NaxosDirect. There, consumers can purchase all of the label's US-distributed titles (including AudioBooks), as well as CDs and DVDs from the major labels Naxos of America distributes in the US and Canada (CPO, Marco Polo, Dacapo, CBC, First Edition, PentaTone, Artek, Profil, LSO, Opus Arte, TDK, Arthaus, Idéale Audience, and EuroArts). NaxosDirect features a tempting array of search tools and interactive features, a NaxosDirectBlog, everyone's-a-critic customer reviews, news reports, composer biographies, historical information, gift certificates, and other enticements. While Naxos does not directly price CDs below retail, their new Customer Rewards Program offers rebates of 5% NaxosDirect dollar points, redeemable for anything in the store. (Note to Canadian readers: NaxosDirectca.com, a separate site geared to Canadians, is due later this summer).

Naxos of America's parent company has also launched Classicsonline, a wide-ranging classical music download site. Classicsonline not only offers recordings from Naxos, but also from BIS, Chandos, Collegium, Coro, Hänssler Classics, Hungaroton, Vanguard Classics, and a hell of a lot of other classical labels that Naxos USA does not distribute in the US. All tracks are free of digital rights management (DRM) and available in either WMA or MP3 formats at 192kbps. Covers and liner notes can also be downloaded and printed. Up to 1000 new titles will be added each month.

Naxos of America's CEO, Jim Sturgeon, explains Naxos' motivation for establishing the sites. "We're not competing with our friends at ArkivMusic, which is the classical music one-stop. Rather, for us to stay healthy in today's fluctuating market, we must find every avenue possible to reach the consumer, including a website of our own. We have to make sure that by whatever means the consumer wants to access our product, we are there."

Sturgeon also sounds a note of caution. "At the moment," he says, "online sales are beginning to flatten or even drop. Consumers are getting a little fatigued from sitting behind their computers. No one can tell us with certainty what tomorrow's market will look like."

For audiophiles and music lovers concerned more about sound quality than Naxos' marketing options, Sturgeon has good news. Naxos has signed a deal with MusicGiants. Assuming everyone gets their act together in time, by early July, Naxos' 500 top catalog titles (including PentaTone's SACD titles) will be downloadable from MusicGiants as CD-quality, lossless WMA files. The only caveat is that you must use Internet Explorer 6.0 to access the MusicGiants store; for Mac users, this requires one of the newer, Intel-based Macs equipped with both Windows and Internet Explorer. (This leaves Windows-resistant Mac users such as myself out in the cold.) Classicsonline eventually intends to offer downloads of higher quality than 192kbps.

There is yet another Naxos site, Naxos Music Library. A subscription service aimed at music professionals, collectors, and educational institutions, the library includes more than 16,000 CDs—the complete catalogs of BIS, Chandos, CPO, Hänssler, Hungaroton, Marco Polo, and Naxos, plus selected titles from other independents—that are available for streaming 24/7 for a yearly subscription fee of $150. Naxos claims, somewhat optimistically regarding sound quality, "Recordings are streamed in near-CD quality (64kbps). Streaming in CD quality (128kbps) is also available at a premium. Subscribers using a dial-up connection can stream in FM-quality sound (20kbps)." Eventually, Naxos hopes to market a receiver that will wirelessly send the Naxos Music Library from computers to audio systems.

Aficionados of historic classical, jazz, and popular instrumental and vocal recordings will unfortunately discover that Naxos' invaluable Historical, Nostalgia, and Jazz Legends CD labels are not available from any of these sites "due to the uncertain legal situation regarding pre-1972 sound recordings." Since these discs are available in Europe, the only way around the ban is to purchase the recordings from amazon.co.uk or other European sites. For this opera lover, access to Naxos' reissues of the Romophone catalog of vocal recordings, albeit without Romophone's original detailed booklets, has proven a godsend. As Terry McKuen, former head of London Records and general director of the San Francisco Opera once said to critics who did not know the recordings of Claudia Muzio, "How can you be a critic when you have no standards?"

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