Another Indie Label Goes the Download Route

Canada has targeted your iPod and hard drive. On March 7, CBC Records, the record label of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, announced a deal with the Independent Online Distribution Alliance (IODA) that will make CBC's entire catalog of 400 active and archival classical, jazz, world, and rock titles available for download. The announcement comes just six weeks after major independent label and distributor Harmonia Mundi declared that it would follow the same route.

CBC Records was founded in the not-so-ancient heyday of vinyl, at a time when few Canadian classical artists and composers were being recorded. The goal was to make Canadian-performed classical repertoire available for broadcast on the CBC/Radio-Canada public broadcast network (which now includes TV, radio, and satellite radio, as well as Internet streaming via Recordings are also broadcast by European Public Radio, and National Public Radio (NPR) in the US.

The label, which searches out gifted Canadian musicians through local, regional, and national organizations, is usually the first to record Canadian artists who go on to become international stars. Over the years, CBC Records has issued some of the first recordings by such major classical artists as tenors Jon Vickers, Ben Heppner, and Michael Schade; pianist and recent Gramophone cover girl Angela Hewitt; violinist James Ehnes; mezzo-soprano Maureen Forrester; bass-baritone Gerald Finley; and sopranos Karina Gauvin and Isabel Bayrakdarian. The glamorous-voiced soprano Measha Brueggergosman is the latest CBC artist to be signed by a major label (Deutsche Grammophon). Joining CBC comes Maestro Kent Nagano, whose relatively new tenure with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal should produce recordings of one of his specialties, the music of Olivier Messiaen.

Classical music, however, no longer dominates the CBC catalog. A good 50% of CBC Records' current projects are nonclassical. The label often combines artists who would not normally play together, to create unique events that are also broadcast on TV, radio, and the Net. Among its biggest recent sellers are two CDs by African Guitar Summit. Comprising six African guitarists who have made their homes in Canada, the Summit plays in a variety of African styles. CBC's jazz artists include Guido Basso, flugelhorn; Don Thompson on vibes, piano, and bass; Renee Rosnes, piano; and Phil Dwyer on tenor sax.

Randy Barnard, CBC Records' General Manager, explains that while he records artists at 24-bits/96kHz using the RADAR multitrack technology, all recordings are issued on two-track "Red Book" CDs. "The expense and the returns I was going to get off SACD did not warrant its adoptation," he says. Be that as it may, the label makes recordings of superb quality. A case in point is CBC's disc of Karina Gauvin's beautiful rendition of an audiophile favorite, Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne, featuring a colorful chamber-orchestra arrangement in a recording notable for its air, clarity, and realistic portrayal of acoustic space.

Downloading options are currently limited to standard compressed bit rates. "This is a relatively new territory for me," Barnard explains. "I want to allow for the broadest distribution of Canadian artists in the way I deem most effective. I personally download more and more often, via the mobile ability of my iPod, and want to be able to compete in that market. Once I become more familiar with the technology, I will eventually investigate and embrace making lossless files available for downloading. I'm taking baby steps at the moment."

Due to the recent emergence of a host of fine indie labels in Canada, CBC Records has dropped its release schedule from 25–30 CDs per year to about half that. Seventy percent of the label's sales are in Canada, and 20% in the US. Retail CD sales in the US have in fact declined by 10% since the demise of the Tower Records retail chain, leaving CBC to rely on the Barnes & Noble, Virgin, and Naxos distribution outlets.

"I'm finding that physical distribution is becoming almost impossible in the international forum," says Barnard. "I used to have distribution in about 18 countries. Now I have physical distribution only in Canada, US, UK, and France. The administration and warehousing of inventory in other countries no longer warrants the effort. Our strategy is therefore twofold: to develop digital platforms, and to license some of our hard product to labels that are in a much better position to distribute it." The deal with IODA, which makes possible digital distribution to US, UK, and overseas outlets, complements digital distribution systems already in place in Canada, and a subscriber-based digital streaming service in Hong Kong that's handled by Naxos.

Digital encoding, marketing, and distribution for both CBC Records and Harmonia Mundi are made possible by San Francisco–based IODA, founded in 2003 by Kevin Arnold. Fifteen percent of IODA's current catalog of indie-label music is classical. Those 6200 classical releases, part of IODA's total catalog of 800,000 tracks, account for 11% of its sales. LSO Live, Naxos, Ondine, Coro, San Francisco Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Milwaukee Symphony, Hänssler Classics, New Albion, Other Minds, Arabesque, Gimell, Summit, Atma Classique, and Wigmore Hall Live are among the host of classical indie labels in IODA's stable.

Erik Gilbert, IODA's vice-president of Content, explains that IODA creates lossless files, then encodes them to the requirements of specific consumer download sites. Gilbert encounters little call for FLAC and other lossless formats in his day-to-day operations. Besides MusicGiants and Magnatune, the only lossless download site he's aware of is BLEEP, which focuses mainly on electronic music, OD2, Infospace Mobile, and Mobilestreams. "There's a small audiophile demographic within the electronic community. In order for demand to increase for lossless encoding, it will have to come from the classical and audiophile communities."

Curiously, Gilbert has neither bought a CD nor downloaded any music in the past two years. "I stream albums from Rhapsody," he says, "which, played back through my inherited Rotel system, sound as good as CD quality. Rhapsody changed my life."

It remains to be seen if the discussion Gilbert and I had about upgrading his cables and equipment leads to another life-altering change.