Deutsche Grammophon Goes Online

The recording label Deutsche Grammophon, founded in 1898, boldly ventured into the 21st century on November 28 with a new online store that eschews digital rights management (DRM) and offers MP3 downloads at 320kbps.

The numbers are impressive: over 2400 "albums" (1000 of which include PDF text booklets) including 600 "out of print" recordings (over 100 of which are unavailable elsewhere), 3000 artists, and 950 composers. The initiative, the press release stated, is "part of Universal Music Group’s ongoing market trials of DRM-free downloads, announced earlier this year." This initially concerned me, since I remembered "experiments" of times past, such as Circuit City's failed DIVX, which died a well-deserved death in 1999, leaving its few customers cut off in 2001.

"These are purchases that you own, once you download them," said Jonathan Gruber, vice president of new media, classics and jazz at UMG, DG's parent company. "Yes, this is part of a market trial, but we will never deprive anyone of something they have purchased on the online store."

While I had Gruber on the phone, I asked him about the constant bit-rate (CBR) 320kbps resolution, which although superior to iTunes' 128–256kbps AAC files, is still less than Red Book quality. "We felt we had to offer the best we could, keeping the balance between highest quality downloads without sacrificing too much in terms of download speed right now—and there are inter-operability issues with some of the lossless formats. However, we have plans. It will take a while, but we will be offering some projects in better than CD quality. It's not just a question of what we can do, it's a question of everything down the line, from the pipeline to the devices the files are stored and played on.

"We have to do it right and we have to make it convenient for consumers."

I asked Gruber how DG chose the 2500 files they've made available. "We didn't release 2500 files, we released 2500 albums and some of those are multi-volume. I can't give you a count of how many 'CDs' we're releasing, but we're talking a lot! What we've released is the entirety of DG's currently available catalog that's in audio download format. That means we aren't offering DG DVDs yet (we don't have a way to deliver the video, yet)—and there are back catalog items that have never been digitally remastered. On the other hand, there are many offerings available on the online store that are not part of our currently active [physical] catalog.

"Making stuff available online is not zero cost, so we will have to prioritize the back catalog that has never been brought out on CD. We want to stay in business, of course, and these are times when the record industry is struggling, but we believe it is possible to sell classical music online—as long as we are careful to do things right."

So how would I grade DG on "doing things right"? Reasonably well. While I heard reports of first-day meltdowns, when I went online a few days later, the interface was fast and simple to use. I discovered a wide variety of hard-to-find DG titles, such as items from the catalog's 20/21 series, including works by Osvaldo Golijov (who cannot, apparently, write an uninteresting note) and long out-of-print recordings by Berio and Nono.

Prices are decent, too. Complete "disc" downloads run around $11.99 USD with downloaded notes ($10.99 without). The price in Europe is €10.99–11.99. Considering the low sales of classical music, this is not unreasonable, although the price point is already generating some resistance in online forums. It should be noted that Alex Ross observed on The Rest is Noise that one of the recordings I downloaded for $11.99 was recently only available in the US on an imported CD selling for $40 or more.

Because the files are so large, downloads do take a while—using DSL, I averaged about 30 minutes per complete "disc." On the other hand, the downloads went smoothly and transferred to my server with no glitches—an altogether encouraging circumstance.

The metadata, which is the Achilles Heel of many an online classical store and tagging service, is pretty good, albeit not perfect. That's an area where I wish DG had taken the lead, since most sources get it so exceptionally wrong. Take, for instance, my download of an album that paired Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen and Georgy Kurtág's Stele, which listed the Berlin Philharmonic with Frederich Goldmann in the artist field for the Stockhausen, which is technically correct. However, since it listed the "album artist" as Jurgen Rock (guitar) and the Berlin Philharmonic and the album title is listed as "Kurtág: Grabstein für Stephan, Op.15 / Stockhausen: Gruppen, it becomes difficult to search my music operating system for the items by composer. It's understandable that Amazon's classical metadata is a hopeless mess, but you'd expect DG to get it righter.

That's a minor inconvenience, however. The actual download of the music was spectacular—especially given the dynamic range of the Kurtág compositions. The silence was deeply black and the fortissimos were overwhelming. The sound was clear and timbrally convincing.

I was even able to download recordings that have not yet been released in the States yet, such as Anne Sofie van Otter's Terezin, which was released in Europe last summer, but will not be available domestically until March. That makes DG's online store truly international, unlike many online enterprises, which consider covering the US and Canada "international." Currently, citizens from 42 countries can buy online—southeast Asia (which includes China), India, and South Africa will be added in the near future.

There are still a few questions that remain to be answered. One is whether the downloaded files are watermarked—I just downright forgot to ask. The DRM-free UMG files offered at Amazon's download service include "transactional watermarks," which identify which music store sourced the file (UMG also offers DRM-free MP3s through BestBuy, RealNetworks, and Puretracks, and the company says the transactional marks are part of its ongoing download experiment).

The other question is whether label-specific sites are what the consumer wants. Although DG, EMI, and Virgin all offer dedicated classical stores, the question is whether or not the average listener has a strong sense of label identity. ArkivMusic's Eric Feidner isn't sure about that, although he freely acknowledges that DG is an example where "the label is the brand and DG's store will be a valuable resource for knowledgeable classical listeners."

"The history of DG and the legacy of its recording artists is compelling," Feidner observed. "In fact, when we decided to create a box of our favorite Beethoven recordings, we were able to pick 23 CDs from DG's catalog that we could definitively declare 'essential.' That's the most frequently recorded repertoire in the world, but DG recorded Richter, Szering, Kremer, von Karajan, Kempff, Carlos Kleiber, and so many other greats. That's a phenomenal legacy."

"However," Feidner observed, "many consumers don't feel comfortable cherry picking a catalog's offerings, which is where stores with deep catalogs and knowledgeable staffs still come in. If you want Herbert von Karajan's Beethoven symphonies, you probably know to look for them on DG—but he recorded three complete sets, which can be confusing to somebody just looking for a single symphony cycle. Another reason so many people shop at sites like Amazon is that they are one-stop shopping—although few classical consumers can navigate Amazon's classical offerings since they are so poorly organized."

"In that sense, DG's website is good for the classical customer because it makes the classical shopping experience better," Feidner noted.

I concur, although it must be said that in addition to downloading the Kurtág/Stockhausen, von Otter, and My Flame Burns Blue from DG's site, I also ordered ArkivMusic's Deutsche Grammophon's Essential Beethoven while I was online. After all, 23 discs that quintessential for $124.98 is a steal.