Boston joins the download party

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has joined the list of orchestras making recordings available for download:

…the Boston Symphony Orchestra launched a download service yesterday that will allow customers to buy new and historical recordings through the organization’s website,

The service made immediately available 179 previously released tracks by the BSO, Boston Pops, Boston Symphony Chamber Players, and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. But listeners must wait until February for a recording created under the baton of music director James Levine. Four albums of Levine-led material will be available, two on CD, two digitally, though this week the BSO would only reveal one of the pieces to be included, the 2007 performance of Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe.”…

Like all orchestras, the BSO has struggled to find a suitable solution to the collapse of the traditional record industry. Its most recent recording deal expired five years ago. In recent years, the BSO has not released new CDs, the lone exception being a one-off deal with Nonesuch to put out 2006’s “Neruda Songs,” a collaboration with Peter Lieberson and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

Other orchestras have moved faster to create download options. The New York Philharmonic, for example, launched its own service in 2006, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra followed suit early in 2007. The BSO said it needed more time because it wanted to create a system that could operate without signing on with an outside distributor. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for example, uses an outside company to place downloads on iTunes,, and Rhapsody.

My orchestra was the first orchestra to offer downloads of previously unreleased recordings, closely followed by Los Angeles and New York. I’m surprised that it took Boston so long, given Boston’s connection with the MIT Media Lab and the oodles of cash they have. And the initial product line appears to be material that’s already been released on CD, so it’s not quite as big a deal as it appears at first glance.

Kim Noltemy, the BSO’s marketing director, said the organization has been disappointed with its experience making downloads available through other sites. She predicted it could do better allowing customers to buy direct.

“We’ve been on iTunes and all of the other sites for ages, and we hardly realize any revenue from that,” she said. “This is an opportunity to get more of the revenue share. And the customer can actually connect the concert experience with what we have available for digital downloads.”

They are likely to be disappointed if they’re really expecting to make money off this stuff. The iTunes Music Store and other download stores operate on a revenue split arrangement, and their cut is pretty reasonable, especially considering what it costs to set up a download store. Our download store was set up through our distributor (who also takes a reasonable cut), and we view giving them a revenue cut as a good deal compared to what it would take in money and (more important) staff time to set up our own stand-alone operation. And, of course, being on the iTunes Music Store means a lot more people are likely to see the product than will do so on an orchestra’s own website.

As I indicated, we do both – the online stores and one integrated into our own website. The real benefit from running our own store is not the revenue but the customer information.

And I wonder what “actually connect[ing] the concert experience with what we have available for digital downloads” means in practice. Maybe this:

Rich Bradway, the BSO’s associate director of e-commerce and new media, imagines a time, not far off, when a concert-goer could attend a performance and then, within 48 hours, download it from a home computer.

There is an orchestra in Europe (although I don’t remember which one) that’s doing this, minus the 48 delay. If it’s really a live performance, there’s no need for a delay. But 48 hours is not a lot of time to do edits and get them approved by the artists. And, of course, then it’s not really a live performance.

The BSO noted it is the first orchestra to offer downloads in both MP3, the most commonly used online format, and in HD Surround, a higher quality format compatible only with PCs. The first compresses music so that it does not sound as full as a CD; the other is meant to create a fuller, richer sound…

Andrew Rose, the sound engineer whose French company Pristine Audio specializes in old classical records, said he would have preferred the orchestra make it possible to download recordings in a quality that’s better than MP3 and not as hard to use as HD Surround. Pristine Audio, for example, uses the FLAC format, which can easily be converted to CDs and for iPods.

There’s a lot of snobbery about MP3 and AAC (the iTunes format) and other “lossy” compression schemes. In my experience, it’s unjustified, at least for classical recordings. Admittedly my hearing may be somewhat compromised from years of playing in an orchestra. But, when I convert high-resolution audio (24 bit / 92 kHz) to MP3s at 320K and CD (16/44.1) format, I hear no difference between the MP3 and the CD, although neither sounds as good as the original. And, according to the folks with truly golden ears, nothing sounds as good as a well-done analog master tape.

Every audio format is “lossy.” Get over it.

The idea of using the HD Surround format is an interesting one, though. It’s a Windows Media format, which means that it’s going to be hard impossible to use except on a Windows computer (and nothing is easy on a Windows computer either). I doubt that most potential listeners are going to go to the trouble of setting up a Windows computer to do surround sound. But it may be that some computer audiophile geeks will be attracted to this product line, even though many of them won’t be listening to the music so much as the technology (my wife defines an audiophile as “someone who listens to the hiss”).

On the other hand, it’s probably not an expensive option for the BSO to offer, and they will be charging a premium for it. It’s certainly a worthwhile experiment, and not so different in concept from my orchestra’s adventures in binaural recording.


One Response to “Boston joins the download party”

  1. Linn Says:

    awesome post.. interesting read as well.

    thanks for sharing

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