San Francisco Mahler Symphony Premiers as Download

In a surprising move, the San Francisco Symphony has announced plans to release the next installment in its ongoing Mahler series, the beloved Symphony 5, in download format before issuing the recording on hybrid SACD/CD. The Fifth will first become available on iTunes on September 12, and in hard format three weeks later. Such an unprecedented release schedule, from one of the few symphony orchestras in the world to regularly record in the high-resolution SACD format, can be seen as part of a near-universal recognition among record labels of the importance of online sales.

"We're always looking toward the future here," SFS's veteran director of operations and electronic media, John Keiser, told Stereophile. "We recognize the growing online market the San Francisco Symphony is enjoying."

SFS began making its Mahler series available for download in iTunes' AAC format about a year ago. Most of the symphonies, save for those with movements less than seven minutes long, must be downloaded in toto, for a total "double album" cost of about $12. Given that the Mahler series will soon launch on eMusic and Rhapsody, the SFS chose to honor its first online seller, iTunes, with its special Mahler 5 promotion.

Still, there's no need to sound the death knell for hybrid SACD quite yet. Keiser reports that the Mahler series' debut on iTunes has not signaled a dropoff in sales of hard media, nor have iTunes sales begun to approach the pace of those of the Mahler hybrid SACDs.

A case in point is SFS's first release in the Mahler series, Symphony 6. Since 2002, Mahler 6 has sold 18,100 hybrid SACDs. That compares to 1640 total downloads of all the Mahler symphonies (album downloads plus single tracks) made available for download since the iTunes launch last year. To the extent that downloading reflects a younger demographic less concerned with sound quality, it doesn't seem unreasonable to infer that SFS's Mahler series has yet to shoot sparks through the earbuds of Generation iPod. Perhaps the length of many of Mahler's symphonic movements, his wide-ranging emotional compass, and the sonic compromises of his orchestrations effected by low-quality players and earbuds all have something to do with it.

"The old rule of thumb is that sales will be strongest in the first year of an album's release, then they'll tend to trail off," reports Keiser. "In our case, however, sales of all symphonies remain fairly strong. We've built up a certain momentum over the years. When we introduce a new album in the series, there is a spike in all sales, but then they level off and continue apace. Given how fast we ship product out and the rarity of returns, it's clear that no recording is selling significantly better than any other."

Keiser estimates that a third of the SFS's SACD sales occur through the orchestra's "real" store and "virtual" e-store, with the Davies Symphony Hall outlet accounting for 80–85% of those sales. Another third are through Harmonia Mundi USA, the SFS's distributor in the US and Canada. The final third occurs worldwide, through Avie in the UK and a network of distributors elsewhere in the world. Although no statistics exist on how many hybrid SACDs are sold to owners of SACD or multiformat players, Keiser ventures a "generous guess" that it's no more than 8–10%.

After four years in the SACD business, SFS Media has scheduled its first in-house demo of surround-sound SACD for later in September. Board members will attend the Davies Symphony Hall demo on September 25, with orchestra members and staff invited the following day. The hi-rez format has been demonstrated far more in Europe, South America, and the Far East than in the US.

In the future, audiophiles can look forward to releases of the remaining symphonies in the series: the Adagio from the unfinished Symphony 10 (awaiting its coupling, a replacement for a performance of the Rückert Lieder with the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, canceled due to her advancing illness), and the glorious Symphony No. 8. Also expected are recordings of Mahler's other music for voice and orchestra, including Des Knaben Wunderhorn (first songs for male voice, then female voice), Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, and the monumental Das Lied von der Erde. Given the symphony's checkered history with recording Mahler soloists—in addition to the Hunt Lieberson disappointment, Michelle de Young replaced Nathalie Stutzmann in the Kindertotenlieder due to the intervention of 9/11—the soloists for these recordings have yet to be announced.