EMI Takes Classical Music Online

EMI and Virgin Classics, one of the oldest and two of the most respected names in classical music, have undertaken a series of audiophile-friendly initiatives designed to strengthen their online presence. At the start of September, the labels together launched the EMI and Virgin Classics Listening Club. Open to music lovers who purchase new EMI or Virgin Classics discs marked with the Opendisc logo, the club's "exclusive" online environment offers participants the opportunity to build relationships with some of the labels' top artists.

On placing an Opendisc CD in a computer and creating a membership profile, consumers gain access to the club without risk of having software, spyware, or copy-protection systems installed. Once inside the club's virtual walls, they can access special pre-release listening sessions (encoded at 128kbps for easy streaming), video interviews, mini-documentaries, podcasts, and photo shoots. They can also address questions to a panel of experts or to the artists themselves; answers to selected questions will be posted monthly.

By buying EMI or Virgin Classics CDs and/or answering surveys, members receive Club Points that can be used to download free tracks from the club catalog. Forthcoming is a download shop where consumers will be able to download pre-releases encoded at 320kbps or, probably within six months, as lossless files. (More good news on the lossless front follows.)

According to Will Benthall, director of digital services at EMI Classics UK, the 1500 people who joined the club in its first three weeks of operation averaged two visits per person. Six had posed questions: half to experts, half to artists. "The key for us," he explains, "is that people are coming back more than once. They're not just entering to get their free track or get their free preview; they want to build a relationship with our artists. We in turn are adding value to their CD purchases, and introducing traditional classical-music consumers who are accustomed to playing CDs on their hi-fi to listening to music on their computer."

In addition, the Listening Club gives EMI and Virgin the chance to conduct market research with committed listeners. It also allows artists who usually relate to fans in the concert hall to build relationships via the Net. "This is very important as CD stores are dying," says Benthall. "We have a new opportunity to democratize classical music and encourage increased involvement."

The EMI & Virgin Classics Listening Club follows on the heels of EMI's iTunes Plus initiative, which markets high-quality, 320kbps, DRM-free digital downloads. While individual tracks cost a bit more than standard MP3s, the cost to download an entire album is the same as for the lower-rez MP3 version. According to our own John Atkinson, "You need at least 256–320kbps to get sound quality that will fool some of the listeners some of the time that they are listening to CD."

The future holds especially good news for audiophiles. EMI is currently signing contracts with "classical specialists," as yet unnamed, to provide lossless downloads to consumers.

"iTunes is absolutely brilliant in bringing classical to a wider audience," says Benthall. "But I don't think anyone would argue they're a classical specialist. It's difficult to browse through classical music on iTunes if you don't know what you want. We're working with two or three classical partners to make lossless files available in the next six months. Their sites will enable people to easily browse and learn more about classical music."

EMI also has plans to make live classical concerts available for download. Two weeks before the Berlin Philharmonic performs Mahler's Symphony 9 in New York on November 13, as part of Carnegie Hall's Berlin in Lights Festival, EMI will record the performance in Berlin for release as a 320kbps download. While Universal Classics paved the way with its ongoing DG Concerts and Decca Concerts series, available from iTunes, EMI's higher-quality downloads are certain to seduce sound-conscious listeners.