Classical Heaven?

One of the great tragedies of Tower Records' lingering demise was that classical music lovers lost perhaps their most reliable source of recordings. Say what you will about brick-and-mortar record stores, there was something wonderful about finding what you wanted where it was supposed to be. Just try looking up, say, Bruckner's Fourth Symphony on Amazon and see what you get. (Amazon's AI, as good as it is, is a classical music idiot.)

I was musing about this, as well as other matters, a few weeks ago at a get-together of former Tower classical employees we'd informally dubbed the "Tower wake." Jon Feidner, one of my erstwhile fellow classical floor supervisors, mentioned that he was currently working at "You know what that is," he said in passing.

"Oh yes," I lied, confusing it, as I imagine many music lovers do, with the early-music division of Deutsche Grammophon. As we chatted, Jon pointed down to the table to John Bauer, another erstwhile classical department stalwart, and said, "The reason John was able to come to this tonight is that we just bought the rights to a huge amount of back-catalog at Sony BMG and he's in town choosing the masters we're going to take."

"Oh really?" This sounded interesting. "What will you do with them?"

"We'll load them on our server uncompressed and offer them through our ArkivCD line."

We were in BB, formerly the Bowery Bar, and it was noisy and, frankly, there was alcohol present. What I heard was "uncompressed," "server," and "," so perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking Jon was saying that ArkivMusic was planning on offering an immense portion of the Sony and BMG classical catalog as high-rez downloads. "Sounds interesting," I said. "We should talk about it sometime."

It did sound interesting and I did drop Jon an email asking about the program, but we both let it age in the "to-do" pile until I picked up November 25's New York Times and spotted Steve Smith's article "Where Collectors Can Get Lost Classical Recordings." Smith reported on ArkivMusic's addition of more than 1600 out-of-print titles to its site. "Dang," I said, skimming the article. "I was meant to break this one!"

What I had missed, I realized as I perused Smith's piece, was that ArkivMusic is not offering uncompressed downloads, but bit-for-bit copies of the original masters, burned on demand to CD-R and shipped to the customer. As I discovered when I called Jon's brother Eric Feidner, president of ArkivMusic, I'd also missed quite a bit of the bigger picture as well—and that, fellow music lovers, is actually one heck of a story.

First, a bit of personal history: I first met Eric Feidner when we worked together at the Fourth Street and Broadway Tower Records in New York. Eric was a SUNY/Purchase graduate French horn player, who rose through the Tower ranks to store manager of the Lincoln Center store. He left in 1995 to work for MCI, which had the idea of selling music over the phone (1800MUSICNOW)—a great idea, but 1995 was when the Internet suddenly went mainstream and phones just seemed so 20th century.

Eric then went on to N2K, which built Music Boulevard, one of the first web-based music stores, which then became one of the largest Internet retailers, before merging with CDNow in 1998 and going public. As Eric puts it, "At that time, you could pretty much do anything on the Internet, so I ran e-commerce for a large telecommunications company for a couple of years. In 2000, I got together with some of the guys I'd worked with from N2K, and we got back to our original idea of focusing on this niche of providing classical music and serving it really well.

"We started ArkivMusic in February 2002, just in time for the Internet bust. We decided we'd build a really great classical interface on the web—nobody else had one, and, as far as I can see, now one else still has one. Our idea was to easily let you find, say, all of the recordings of the Bruckner Fourth Symphony."

"Funny you should mention that, " I said.

"A better example might be to easily review all 200+ recordings of the Vivaldi Four Seasons" Eric said. "With our database, you could quickly scroll through artists, conductors, ensembles, or however you wanted to sort them.

"Our goal on the front end was to build a great interface for the customer, but since we're really a technology company, our goal on the back end, our big challenge was how do you really source these products efficiently? Our business assumption is that the classical music distribution system is a broken system, because you can't really stuff all of this deep catalog product into the pipeline of distributors, wholesalers, retail stores—this whole chain of locations—to sell possibly 200 copies per year of a single title.

"In that model, the odds of a specific customer and a specific recording actually managing to get together are realistically quite low. Most of those recordings are just going to go back through that system to the label in an endless cycle of returns and shipping and deletions.

"That's why we say our goal at ArkivMusic is to build an efficient distribution system for classical recordings. We've built a distribution network of about 20 shipping centers around the country and we ship from the nearest shipping location. In order to do that, we had to build another level of infrastructure to allow us to take orders, route them to distribution centers, and receive the appropriate response from them."

"That sounds like a major challenge right there," I said.

"It was, but we had to do that before we could tackle our secret plan for classical domination," Eric said. "Our bigger idea was not to simply solve the problem of distributing in-print recordings, but rather to address all of the deleted material out there. There's a lot more classical music that's not currently available, than is in print—and the inefficiency of the distribution system is a major contributor to that material going out of print. My idea was to license those recordings—don't produce them, just license bit-for-bit copies of the originals—and put the uncompressed files on our server, along with all the graphic information we need for the packaging, and make it available. When the order comes through, we make it on demand. We burn the CD-R, we print the packaging, and we physically deliver it to the customer

"It's a pretty sophisticated system. What we don't offer are the booklets, because we just haven't figured out an economical way to do those on-demand—they're pretty labor intensive."

"So you believe the market lies in a physical product, not digital files?" I asked.

"When we talk about what the classical consumer wants, we are very aware of considerations like file formats. Should we really be selling a compressed MP3 recording or should we be selling a lossless, full-frequency reproduction? We think our customers still find sound quality as important as the price-point and the physical package. We don't doubt that digital downloads will someday be a significant portion of the market, but they aren't yet.

"When you look at all of those iPods out there and all of the classical music sitting on people's hard drives, those are not purchased downloads—most of it is music that people have ripped from CDs they've actually purchased. So we ask ourselves how much effort should we put into an infrastructure that delivers these immense files when that's not how people are actually acquiring their music? Yet.

"You could argue that we're already selling a lossless digital format," Eric said. "It's called a CD. You order it from us and we ship it in the mail to you. Rip it onto your server and keep the disc as a back-up. It probably is easier for a lot of people than trying to download huge files.

"Look at our website and, in addition to the on-demand ArkivCDs, you'll see "real" CDs like the Bach box set, 150 CDs of everything he composed, for $140. It would be completely impractical to try to download something like that, and even if you could, wouldn't you rather have it in a box?"

Eric was emphatic, "When we do sell CD-Rs, the sound files are direct WAV, bit-for-bit copies of the original masters. If you didn't like the sound of that original disc, you won't like our ArchivCDs any better—they're the same. No remastering is involved. I can't say that I personally can make a distinction between pressed and CD-R copies, but some people have an issue with that. All I can say is that we're constantly researching which are the best CD-Rs to use on both sound quality and longevity. We buy the best raw materials we can—and our supplier says they should last 100 years. We've only been doing this for three years, so we have a way to go before testing that claim.

"We're very clear about what we're selling as CD-Rs. There are record labels, including some we sell, where you don't know they are CD-Rs, because the manufacturer hasn't told us. There's no label on the sealed disc. I think the Lyrita reissues are CD-Rs, for instance."

Eric was quiet. "Actually, fewer of our customers are concerned about the sound quality of the CD-Rs—if you want a specific performance of a work, you want that one, and these days, we're where you can get that. I'd say more people are concerned about getting the liner notes. We frequently make the liner notes available online, especially for vocal recordings. We will eventually figure out the best way to do that.

"Most of what we sell is still pressed CDs. For example, that Bach set is pressed CDs—and, ironically, it's still cheaper to press CDs than it is to burn them the way we do for ArkivCDs. We have already created (as of the time of the interview, but more are in the pipeline) 1729 ArkivCDs, but we sell thousands of titles that are 'real' CDs.

Eric gathered his thoughts again. "That brings us to a third leg of our strategy. You know, a lot of people want the titles they hear on classical radio stations. As much as 50% of what you'll hear on the radio is out of print, so we researched what we wanted very carefully when we went to Sony BMG and the other labels. What I should say is that we designed and built a sophisticated linking system for radio station playlists, which we give to radio stations for free—but that allows us to know what the stations are really playing. If a recording is truly out of print, our system can offer recommendations (or reissues, if they exist), but it also allows us to track what's still popular.

"Here's a prime example of the radio situation. Do you know John Marks?"

I allowed as to how I did.

"Oh, of course you do! We were always getting requests for John Marks Records titles, but JMR was obviously a victim of the inefficiency of the classical distribution system, and we just couldn't find out how to get in touch. Finally, I emailed the editor of Stereophile, and he forwarded my note to Marks.

"Well, John Marks Records was a small label, but Marks thought like a large label, and he got all of his recordings out to radio stations with amazing efficiency. If radio stations get stuff onto their playlists, they play them forever, because that's easier for them than adding new recordings. John Marks got his stuff added like crazy and people are hunting for his records. In the past, we were able to scramble for them and get copies for our customers, but they've been getting harder and harder to find, so we now offer his recordings on ArkivCDs.

"Well, what else could we do? For most of the JMR discs, we couldn't offer a recommendation, because they were unique, so we just had to license them to satisfy our customers. We probably couldn't justify a 2000 disc replication run on any of JMR's titles, but we can sell between 200 and 400 discs on demand a year, I think."

I asked Eric if small labels would provide the biggest bump in ArkivCD's offerings.

“Actually, our production-on-demand business has finally begun snowballing because the major labels have lost much of the traditional account base, and, in losing Tower, they lost their easiest distribution partner. A few years ago we couldn't get Sony or the other big labels to even talk to us, now they are much more receptive.

"The reality is that all of the traditional record stores went out of business because they were attempting to compete with deep-discount stores by selling pop CDs at lower prices than they could make any money on—it wasn't digital downloading that killed them, they committed suicide by trying to sell below cost and 'make it up on volume.'

"Oh, there's one more thing I should mention. If you look on our home page right now, we have some gift sets from Naxos. You can only buy them from us, but you get 25 discs for a hundred bucks, and look at these collections! The English Symphonies collection includes Arnold symphonies by the National Orchestra of Ireland and the Bax symphonies by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra—those are the two top-rated recordings of the cycles and there are tons of other great treats in this box. Now don't you want it? Who wouldn't?

"Now let's say you're giving someone an iPod for Christmas and you want to fill it up with music—are you really going to buy lossy downloads at 99¢ a track or would you rather spend $100 for lossless music you can use in your house, your car, and your office as well?

"And look at this Spanish Music collection with Rodrigo, Albeniz, Granados, and Falla, but it also has great stuff by Donostia, Guridi, and Orbón—you know, Wes, you really ought to get this one."

Back when we worked together, Eric did this to me all the time. He'd quietly hand me an LP and say, "I think you ought to buy this," and he was usually right. Now, at ArkivMusic, he's doing it for all of us.

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