Magnatune Offers High-Quality Downloads

In this age of the major record labels maximizing music profits at all costs, even if it involves installing spyware on consumers' computers, stands apart. The website offers entire albums' worth of music of high quality for download in a choice of formats, from highest-quality MP3 (three times the size of iTunes MP3 files) to CD-quality WAV files. It also gives 50% of the money it collects directly to its artists. Magnatune founder John Buckman, 36, who divides his time between London and Berkeley, chose the site's motto: "Internet Music Without the Guilt: Magnatune, the open music record label."

"We are not evil," Buckman proclaims. While one might presume a certain irony in those words—Buckman's former business was Lyris, a top-rated email marketing company—his decision to let downloaders pay what they want, then give 50% of that amount to the artists, is extraordinary.

"The whole idea of Magnatune is that when you buy an album, you actually make a difference in an artist's life," Buckman told Stereophile. "In other purchasing situations, money goes directly to record labels, which then decide what to give artists. With us, musicians and music come first."

Magnatune divides its music into eight genres: Classical, Electronica, Jazz & Blues, Metal & Punk, New Age, Rock, World, and Others (including ambient music). Outstanding artists and organizations signed to this virtual label include the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, pianist Andreas Haefliger, violinist Lara St. John, the New York Consort of Viols, Trevor Pinnock, harpsichordist Hanneke Proosdij, Beth Quist (whose four-octave voice regularly graces Cirque du Soleil shows, and whose music is a hybrid of world, rock, and New Age), Ehren Starks (piano and cello compositions in New Age/classical style), and Paul Avgerinos (ambient space music). Magnatune's own compilations in various genres are also available.

The website requests $8–$15 per album download. With the average consumer paying $8.21, Magnatune is able to give artists 10–20 times more than they would receive elsewhere. Magnatune is especially inviting because one can stream an entire album before deciding to purchase it. Consumers also receive Acrobat files of liner notes and cover art that often include lyrics, translations, facsimiles of original scores, and other features not found in conventional liner notes. A recent promotion encouraging buyers to download an album, then copy it and share it free with three friends, resulted in a 40% upturn in sales.

John Buckman plays Renaissance lute and jazz guitar and is married to a harpsichordist. That he puts music quality and artists first is shown by his agreement with Avie, a UK-based, artist-owned classical label whose releases frequently appear in Gramophone's "Editor's Choice." Avie receives 50% of the payment for each album sold, and gives 80% of that to the artist(s). Avie was one of the first labels to get actively involved in downloading, mainly because Magnatune shares the label's artist-friendly stance and commitment to quality. "All artists associated with Avie and Magnatune own their recordings and the copyright in them," explains Avie's Melanne Mueller. More than half of Avie's artists, all of whom perform material that is in the public domain, are currently online at Magnatune.

Magnatune and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra are currently assessing the orchestra's 30 years of concert recordings, releasing music for download in three-album series every three months. Magnatune bases its choices of what to release partly on sound quality—recordings must be sonically competitive with major-label offerings.

David Bowles, the PBO's sound engineer currently records the orchestra in multitrack, 24-bit/96kHz digital. A live recording of Beethoven's Symphony 8, one of Magnatune's first PBO offerings, began as a 24/96 master that was first edited and mixed using the SADiE system, and then mixed down to 16/44.1 using the POW-R algorithm developed by Daniel Weiss and others.

The PBO's much-lauded Avie SACD of Alessandro Scarlatti's Cecilian Vespers may soon be joined on Magnatune by a live performance of Mozart's arrangement of Handel's Messiah, set to be taped in December 2005. Currently available exclusively on Magnatune are PBO's live renditions of Beethoven's Symphony 3, orchestral works by Mozart, and selected works by Rameau and Leclair.

Magnatune keeps the quality of its music high—of the 400 artists who submit recordings to the company each month, only 10 are accepted. This and the fact that Buckman launched the company globally in 2003, well ahead of Napster's and iTunes' recent European startups, have made it an extremely popular download site in Europe and the UK. As the word gets out to audiophiles, an entirely new market will undoubtedly emerge.