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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Classic choice for the iPod generation

By Norman Lebrecht / May 9, 2007

One lunchtime last summer, I was set upon by a pair of music industry heavies who pounded the table with evangelical fervour. Classical music, they thundered, has been born again. It’s on iTunes.

Forget it, I protested. There’s nothing on sale beyond a handful of popular concert works, it takes four separate transactions to download a symphony, movement by movement, and the sound quality when played back over anything bigger than a personal earpiece is cramped and distorted.

‘That,’ thumped my tormentors, ‘ is gonna change. We’ve found this English guy at I-tunes who likes classics and is putting us in the frame.’ This was no small boast since iTunes, like other e-tailers, has no-one to answer the phone or address minority interests. I decided to wait a few months and assess the difference over a quiet weekend.

What I found was transformation. You can now get most living composers, no matter how esoteric, on iTunes. There are 11 albums of Harrison Birtwistle – more than are stocked in most specialist stores – as well as 18 by the Finnish symphonist Kalevi Aho and three by the Frenchman Tristan Murail. If you want a sound check on Pelleas et Melisande ahead of this week’s Covent Garden staging, there are 16 selections. If it’s for Britten’s Death in Venice at ENO, there’s just one.

Turn to any of the great masters, though, and the search is less edifying, All comers from Bach to Wagner come up with '40+' entries without any rational order or ready means of browsing. Seek conductors and the selection turns haphazard. There are five of Klaus Tennstedt’s Mahler symphonies, six of Georg Solti’s, four of Simon Rattle’s, no cycle complete. Still, the upload is ongoing and only a churl would now deny that iTunes covers the classical waterfront every bit as effectively as a terrestrial store, and for no more than the price of a CD, with regular special offers.

What effect this will have on classical reception in the years ahead is one of the great conundra. Usage figures are vague and unrevealing. A place in the iTunes classical top ten may signify fewer than 100 downloads. The chart itself gives no hint of any classical resurgence. Three of the top five iTunes classical downloads this week consist of the blind tenor Andrea Bocelli doing what he does best – singing pop songs with orchestral accompaniment (one of them with Celine Dion). The other two are Pachelbel’s Canon and the 1812 overture, both common ringtones.

In the album list, the top seller is Mstislav Rostropovich’s EMI recording of the Bach suites, a sales rush triggered by news of his death. It contains, however, only suites 1,4 and 5, the other three being apparently unavailable on iTunes.

For the rest, iTunes remains unfriendly to classical users. You still need to request one movement at a time, the gaps between them can be infuriating and the sound density remains a paltry 128 kilobits per second (Kbps) , which BBC engineers calculate as below one-tenth of CD quality. For listeners who revel in refinements of instrumental sound, iTunes is pathetically underpowered.

More promising is the recently launched Universal website which delivers 320 kbps, and is easy to navigate. A Mahler search lists 99 results, detailed by work and performers for instant access. There are 8,000 albums online, increasing at 1,500 a month. The downside is that 320kbps takes twice as long to receive and is still only one-fifth of CD sound. Also, the Universal site will not communicate with iPods, only (for reasons of rights proptection) with non-Apple MP3 players. This may change when the two California corporations start talking to one another, but for the moment Universal is off-message for nine-tenths of legitimate downloaders.

Then there is , based in Notting Hill and claiming to be the world’s ‘largest download site for classical jazz and blues’. It is grounded in an alliance of little labels, which rules out most star performers, but its ex-musicbiz founder Roger Press is about to announce a deal with Sony-BMG which will put the site among the major players. Streaming rates are 128 or 192 kbps and iPod-compatible. The site works by subscription. Members pay $17.50 a month, for which they get two download symphonies and unlimited play time for other works. ‘We’re the easiest place to find classics,’ says Press, though he, like the others, turns cagey when asked for usage figures.

These are early days yet. While the CD is surely on its last legs – US sales were 20 percent down in the first half of 2006 – and the musicassette was discontinued last week, classical music has yet to find its feet in new media. Much of what is described as progress is actually one step forward, two steps back.

iTunes, for all the zeal of its nameless English uploader, shows no sensitivity for classical users in display or delivery (though speeds may improve as bandwidth expands). Universal and the other major labels are cutting their own aortas by refusing to engage with Apple. is more book club than record store.

The breakthrough, when it comes, will start when a performing organisation – an international concert hall or opera house – puts its output online. Many are already tooling their websites for that day but the first into the water suffered a huge setback last week when the new BBC chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, endorsed a BBC Trust decision to ban further classical downloads after the surge of 1.4 million users on the BBC Philharmonic’s 2005 Beethoven cycle.

The veto, applauded by the music industry and deplored by the BBC director-general Mark Thomson, flies in the face of the BBC’s public mission. If the Proms are, as stated, ‘the BBC’s gift to the world’, how can the Trust deny download access to the greatest potential audience for classical music? You can register your opionion at

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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