New Download Sites Offer Hi-Rez Music

There's good news on the download front. Two sites, one in the UK and the other in the US, are gearing up for major expansions of their catalogs. Both offer DRM-free files in both lossless and high-quality (320kbps) MP3 formats.

The new UK site, which will have classical music lovers there going gaga, is Passionato.com. The subscription-free site with the highbrow name has just launched "the world's largest, most comprehensive collection of high-quality DRM-free classical music downloads." Most tracks are available in both 320kbps MP3 and lossless FLAC formats, the latter convertible to ALC for iPod users.

Free, lower-quality audio samples of up to 60 seconds in length are available for audition. In addition, free downloadable beta software allows you to organize downloaded music alongside music ripped from your existing classical CD collection. Passionato's metadata allows the Player to identify any classical CD you import by matching it with Passionato's database, supplying information such as recording date, location, producer, and engineer. The website search function allows you to browse by composer (subdivided by period), artist (singers are identified by voice type and nationality), and record label. The site includes a host of review excerpts, as well as special recommendations from the Passionato team. There's even a community forum for those who want to defend their favorite soprano, or attack those who love their rivals.

Passionato's founder and CEA, James Glicker, is a US transplant who once headed Worldwide Marketing at BMG Classics, presided over MusicNow (now part of Napster), and served as president of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. In an interview conducted the day after the site's launch, Glicker explained that Passionato.com currently offers music from Universal Classics (Philips, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, etc.), EMI Classics, and Naxos and its subsidiaries.

Once all the metadata are in place, even more offerings from those labels will appear. Universal has yet to agree to make its files available in FLAC format. It will probably take until the end of the year to hammer out a deal with and post content from Sony BMG. Warner (Erato, Teldec, Warner Classics) and a host of independent labels distributed by the Independent Online Distribution Alliance (IODA) are also expected to come onboard.

Not yet available are downloadable liner notes. "The labels didn't get the rights to post them when they first negotiated deals with liner-notes authors years ago," says Glicker. "Clearing the rights is a slow legal process. As we can get the booklets, they'll be posted in PDF format."

Nor are high-resolution downloads on the immediate horizon. "I would welcome Naxos and other labels issuing high-resolution recordings on Blu-ray," says Glicker, "but there's no universal agreement on which high-resolution format to push. Someone has to take the bull by the horns and declare which format everyone will embrace. We don't want to offer multiple hi-rez formats, just as we don't want multiple lossless formats or different MP3 sample rates. The other problem to address is that for most subscribers, downloading a single 24-bit recording would take an entire day and use up 4GB of hard-drive space."

Currently, only UK residents can download files from Passionato.com; US residents attempting to do so will find their credit cards refused. Sister Passionato sites are expected to be established in Germany, France, and, once the labels give them rights, the US.

Here at home, HDtracks.com founder David Chesky is gearing up for a major expansion of his site: On September 30, HDtracks' 24-bit/96kHz store will open. The first 100 titles include choice offerings from Chesky, Dorian, Reference Recordings, 2L, and, from Koch, the Kinks. Everything comes with complete liner notes. (As to why HDtracks can post these while Passionato cannot, perhaps the major labels are bound by more strict contractual agreements—or are more prone to honor them.)

Also on September 30, Harmonia Mundi joins HDtracks' impressive array of major and niche-market independent labels that specialize in jazz, classical, folk, and rock. Tracks from such major and minor independent labels as 2L, Arabesque, BIS, Bridge (strong on Lorraine Hunt Lieberson), Cantaloupe (Bang on a Can and friends), Chandos, CPO, Delos, ERM Media, Important, Klavier Music, Leon Russell Records, Naxos, PentaTone, Phoenix Edition, Six Degree, and the labels of the Chicago, San Francisco, and Toronto Symphony Orchestras are also set to appear.

Everything currently posted at HDtracks is offered in lossless-compressed FLAC and uncompressed AIFF formats, obviating the need for conversion by iPod owners. Lower-quality (320kbps) MP3s are also available for those in a rush.

"We've done a lot of deals with labels," Chesky explains, "but it's time-consuming to rip the music slowly and carefully. The hard part is scanning the liner notes by hand and getting them up. Nobody in this business is set up for that. It's not a quantity game. We're trying to be a high-quality service."

Chesky's goal is to offer people the same experience they used to have when they could drop into Tower, HMV, and other record stores. Pre-purchase audition and critical reviews are available. So are complete recording details. If you buy the Conga Kings on Chesky or Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde on Reference Recordings, you'll be rewarded with the names of all the soloists as well as complete recording information.

HDtracks, which is completely independent from Chesky Records, is also gearing up for a major promotional outreach. On October 6, it launches a major joint venture with Gibson Guitar Corp., offering a free CD giveaway that includes tracks from "all the cool blues and rock guys who play Gibson guitars."

Meanwhile, MusicGiants.com, an industry pioneer in high-quality downloads, continues to make bundling deals with music-server companies. Incredibly, while the site now offers video collections, it remains compatible only with Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player. Mac users and those allergic to Microsoft are left out in the cold, without access to hi-rez downloads from from Telarc, Universal Classics, Sony BMG, EMI North America, Koch, and Warner Music Group. That's ridiculous.

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