Naxos: Classical in the Key of MP3

Naxos, possibly the world's largest classical music label, has taken a leap into the virtual universe of digital downloading. In an unprecedented collaboration—including Naxos of America, the country's largest independent distributor of classical music; eMusic, the world's second-largest digital music service; and bricks-and-mortar retailers such as Borders—Naxos has introduced MPkey, an exclusive series of downloadable classical music collections. Available for purchase only at bricks-and-mortar retailers (and exclusively at Borders stores through December 1), MPkey enables consumers to painlessly download pre-selected Naxos collections of classical music.

On first encountering an MPkey product, the casual observer might mistake it for a boxed set of CDs. Further examination reveals that no CDs are packed within; instead, there are complete liner notes for a preselected classical collection, as well as a "key" the size of a credit card that contains a unique code. Buy the collection ($14.99 SRP for a three-hour collection, $19.99 for six hours), turn on your computer, go to the Naxos website, type in the unique code, and all of the collection's music is painlessly downloaded to your hard drive in MP3 format. You can then burn CDs, transfer the music to your MP3 player, and/or play it through your computer speakers.

Why MPkey? While retail sales of Naxos CDs continue to surpass those of downloaded product, among all of Naxos of America's marketing initiatives, digital downloading is growing fastest—the company's digital streaming library reported record sales in August. This corresponds to recent data from the Consumer Electronics Association indicating that Apple iPods and other MP3 players are outselling all other consumer electronics components.

"We're all beginning to realize that download sales are having an impact," Naxos of America's CEO, Jim Sturgeon, told Stereophile. "More and more people are making the decision to consume digitally rather than purchase hard copy. What was once thought of as an incremental business has become one of sure growth, and is beginning to erode some of the physical business."

One of the main factors inhibiting sales of downloaded media, however, is the time it takes to search for desired tracks. The process is simply too cumbersome, time-consuming, and off-putting for many consumers. "Our time is our greatest commodity," says Sturgeon. "With MPkey, you don't have to spend hours in front of the computer performing searches. MPkey makes the process very simple and enjoyable; it isn't daunting."

On examining iTunes track lists for Naxos CDs, Naxos discovered that most downloaders buy The Very Best of Mozart and assorted wedding samplers rather than recordings of hardcore repertoire (eg, Berio's Sequenzas, Bolcom songs, the works of George Rochberg, or Bartók's string quartets, to name just a few recent releases in the remarkably extensive Naxos catalogue). MPkey's first 12 titles are thus geared toward the downloading neophyte rather than the classical aficionado. Lest there be any question, check out these titles:

Art and Music: Da Vinci/Raphael/Caravaggio (illustrated biographies of the artists accompany a collection of Renaissance music)
A to Z of Classical Music
Chill with Classical Music, Volume One (Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff)
Cinema Classics
Classical Music for Book Lovers
The Complete Symphonies of Beethoven
Great Symphonies (Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Haydn, Saint-Saëns)
Mind/Body/Spirit (classical music to soothe and restore; includes two short guides to nourishing your mind, body, and spirit through meditation and diet)
The Perfect Lullaby
The Perfect Wedding Music for All Occasions
The Very Best of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven
The Very Best of Classical Guitar

"Hardcore listeners are more concerned with quality and the full musical experience," says Sturgeon. "The best place to find that remains on a shiny disc. Downloaders are looking more for the convenience of finding exactly what they want, immediately. Hardcore listeners aren't satisfied with downloading MP3 files because they aren't lossless. I don't know of anything other than lossless compression that will satisfy audiophiles and hardcore music lovers."

Naxos expects that as large computer hard drives grow ever less expensive, more people will consider the downloading of space-consuming lossless files a viable option. Sturgeon and crew are thus investigating options for making lossless files available in the future. Meanwhile, Naxos is sticking with MP3 and making more of its liner notes available online as downloadable JPEG files. [Absent from the pre-release publicity is any mention of which MP3 format will be initially available, but eMusic's default option is VBR (variable bit rate), with an average of 192kbps rate.—Ed.]

By feeding consumers pre-selected product, is Naxos playing to the lowest common denominator rather than giving people the wherewithal to venture into the unknown? No, says Sturgeon: "The field of classical music is daunting. It's like walking into a wine store and not even being able to pronounce Pinot Noir and Merlot, let alone knowing the difference in taste. More than any other label, Naxos is doing the primary job of getting more and more people interested in classical music. We are helping people understand the fundamentals, giving them a basic foundation from which to expand their knowledge. Even our initial MPkey collections include composers most neophytes have never heard of."

For those attached to playing an actual CD with liner notes in hand, Sturgeon offers reassurance: He does not foresee a time when CDs will be replaced by downloadable files. "Retail is never going to go away," he says with confidence. "People still love the experience of going into a store and flipping through things. Meanwhile, as downloading increases, MPkey is a way to include bricks-and-mortar retailers in our downloading arm rather than leaving them out."

What Sturgeon does foresee are more and more opportunities to market classical music via MPkey gift boxes. He has already discussed including Naxos' lullabies collection in gift packages of disposable diapers, and delivering floral bouquets along with MPkey collections of Music for Mother's Day, Music for Lovemaking, and Christmas Music You Love.

"MPkey can provide added value to an existing product," he exults. "The card doesn't even have to come in a CD box. You could find an MPkey card inside a Christmas card. You can get a gift of flowers that die along with music that lives. You can throw away the diaper and the shit, but keep the music."

The mind boggles.