Harmonia Mundi Embraces Downloading and SACD

Harmonia Mundi, one of the world's leading independent classical music labels, has finally taken the downloading plunge. In an agreement with the Independent Online Distribution Alliance (IODA), the world's largest distributor of digital music content, announced on January 24 at the annual music conference of the Marche International De l'Edition Musicale (MIDEM) in Cannes, Harmonia Mundi will make available its entire catalogue of early music and contemporary recordings to hundreds of digital music outlets around the world. IODA will also handle digital distribution of HM's catalogue within France, where Harmonia Mundi is headquartered. A separate agreement with Apple's iTunes makes all Harmonia Mundi titles available on that site as well. Also available are the classical, world, and jazz titles from the more than 30 independent labels that Harmonia Mundi distributes in many parts of the world.

The importance of the decision cannot be understated. Harmonia Mundi now joins Universal Classics, EMI, and Naxos on the World Wide Web. You can now download HM's entire classical catalogue of over 1000 active titles, including recordings by René Jacobs, Philippe Herreweghe, Andreas Scholl, and Kent Nagano. Also available are HM's world, jazz, and chanson recordings on the World Village and Chant du Monde labels, as well as the entire oeuvres of its distributed partners.

According to Jean-Baptiste Rivail, International Director of Harmonia Mundi, the downloading situations in the US and Europe are quite different. While downloading has been a major phenomenon here for some time, only now has it begun to affect European sales of CDs. Thus, while HMU's American distributor, Harmonia Mundi USA, has been uploading its own titles for download for over a year, until now titles produced by Harmonia Mundi s.a., in France, were available only on CD.

For the moment, however, no Harmonia Mundi titles will be available for downloading in a lossless format. "People who are seeking utmost sound quality can buy our titles on CD and SACD," Rivail told Stereophile, "while those whose main concern is searching for new music or comparing interpretations can choose downloading. Obviously, the sound is not the same on an SACD as on an iPod. The different formats are for different publics."

Harmonia Mundi was recently honored, by both Gramophone and the MIDEM Classical Awards, as the Classical Label of the Year. The company favors what Rivail calls "rich production": beautiful, thick booklets filled with handsomely produced color illustrations and generous helpings of musical and historical insights. "We do believe at this stage that part of the joy of discovering and listening to music is visual," he explains. "Our booklets enable you to enjoy music in ways that are not available when you download a file. We are thinking of making our booklets available for download in the future, but it won't be the same. We pay lots of attention to print quality, and use beautiful paper and colors. None of that is available to people who print out liner notes at home."

You thought SACD was dead? Hardly. The mantra of the death of high-resolution audio formats recited by some American audiophiles does not reflect worldwide realities. Harmonia Mundi is but one of many labels that maintain a strong commitment to SACD.

Each country's demand for SACDs is different. In Japan, for example, Harmonia Mundi's Jean-Baptiste Rivail explains that the label sells 50% of its titles on SACD. In Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, HM's regional distributors will not import the CD version of a title when it is also available on SACD. In Taiwan and Canada, HM's regional distributors go a step further, refusing to bring in titles that are not available on SACD. In France, Spain, Latin America, and much of Europe, on the other hand, SACD availability has virtually no impact on sales. The same holds true in Scandinavia, where the market is quite price sensitive, as well as in the UK. Put it all together, and in 2006, 15–20% of Harmonia Mundi's total sales were of SACDs.

"As long as there is no format to replace SACD," says Rivail, "I do not see it dying. In fact, I discuss SACD daily with our clients."

Equally prominent in Rivail's thoughts these days is the closing of Tower Records' retail outlets. "Tower was central to the sale of European product," he laments. "You can find new points of sale for American product, especially when there is a buzz around the artist and ensemble. But for European production, Tower was the flagship. Its closing is having a very bad effect on a lot of small labels. If I had to rely on one word to describe the situation, I'd have say that Tower's closing is a catastrophe for small European labels, who can no longer count on sales in America."