A digital boon for classical music?

New high-quality audio files may entice audiofiles to buy classical fare on the web.

When Amazon.com recently joined the push to sell digital downloads without copy protection, the implications were particularly meaningful to classical-music fans. By removing the layer of software known as digital rights management, or DRM, customers can not only play their music on any device they choose (PCs, Macs, and iPods), but they also may stand to benefit from improved sound quality.

Even with copy protection, classical music has surprised many doomsayers with its robust sales over the past year. On Apple's iTunes, which controls over 70 percent of the digital market, classical purchases account for 12 percent of sales, four times its share of the CD market. Last year, classical was the industry's fastest-growing musical genre, despite the closing of Tower Records, which represented 30 percent of the total classical market share (this bump was partly due to popular crossover acts such as the Italian crooner Andrea Bocelli and the operatic boy band Il Divo). Industry figures are hopeful that dropping copy protection – thus allowing for big, clear-sounding and noncompressed audio files – will generate even stronger interest in classical downloads.

"It will definitely draw more classical listeners to the download," says Mark Forlow, the vice president of EMI Classics US, whose catalogue includes such artists as conductor Simon Rattle and violinist Maxim Vengerov as well as historical recordings by soprano Maria Callas and cellist Jacqueline Du Pré. "For as long as recorded sound has been in existence, the people who buy classical music like to have the best sound."

A week prior to Amazon's decision, EMI announced it would become the first major label to drop DRM from its iTunes catalogue starting later this month. Mr. Forlow believes there is a strong demand for DRM-free music even though it will come at a premium cost of $1.29, which is $0.30 more than iTunes's usual $.99 rate.

Online retailers report that classical consumers usually prefer large audio files that eat up hard-drive space and take longer to download to compressed files that are smaller but sound inferior. At Magnatune, an independent online record label featuring artists such as the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, files come in five different formats, from CD-quality WAV files to compressed MP3s. Shannon Coulter, Magnatune's director of A&R, says the WAV format is the most popular choice. "Real classical music fans tend to be audiophiles," she notes.

Similarly, the Philadelphia Orchestra sells downloads of its performances both as traditional MP3s as well as noncompressed FLAC files, which feature double the encoding rate. Christopher Amos, the orchestra's director of electronic media, says that about half of all sales are in the FLAC format. "We're dealing with a very sophisticated audience," he says. "We've had a lot of traction with specialists."

Others are more skeptical that die-hard classical fans will abandon CDs in favor of downloads, compression or no compression.

"Generally speaking, with classical music there are so many physical discs that you can buy for $8 – uncompressed CDs with liner notes," says Eric Feidner, the president of ArkivMusic.com, an online classical CD store. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to spend the same amount or more for a digital download, which is inherently inferior."

ArkivMusic recently surveyed 4,700 of its customers about their purchasing habits. Nearly two-thirds said they don't listen to music on an iPod and three quarters have never purchased classical downloads. A full 82 percent have never bought music on iTunes.

Many industry analysts say that ultimately, stores like iTunes and eMusic serve the newcomer well, but are less geared to the enthusiast looking to delve deeper.

"Classical-music fans are deeper fans and they feel frustrated with being serviced by traditional retail," says David Card, a senior analyst at Jupiter Research. At the same time, he believes that classical represents a low-risk genre with which to experiment with DRM.

"Labels are concerned that DRM won't jump-start the market enough. If I'm a label, I'm not going to go DRM-free with the latest Shakira song. I'm going with some classical stuff and see if I can command that $1.29 premium."

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