On Record – An Overview of the State of Contemporary Music Recording (Part 3): The Digital Domain

[Ed. Note: This article is the third and final installment in a three-part series exploring the state of contemporary music recordings. Part one is a survey of U.S.-based labels who still regularly release CD recordings featuring new American music; part two examines the current economic realities of the business.]

Is the CD format dead? Not at all, according to the label managers contacted for this story. It’s not even on life support, they said. Still, nobody is ignoring the increasingly important realm of digital downloads.

Contrary to some perceptions, new technologies don’t frighten record companies, at least not the little ones. Certainly the internet has become a lifeline for the business of selling CDs of contemporary music. Websites allow customers to search out obscure composers and browse deep catalog in a way never before possible, even when big record stores were still around. And email has tremendously eased communication with foreign distributors.

Without exception each label manager contacted for this story has some or all of his or her catalog available for download, often at a number of different sites. The plethora of online venues out there—iTunes, eMusic, and Amazon are just the beginning—has led to a new middleman in the business. Digital distributors sign record labels and provide their recordings to websites, where they can be sold for download, in the same way that old-fashioned retail distributors are the go-between for labels to reach retailers. Probably the leading digital distributor is IODA, the Independent Online Distribution Alliance, which provides tracks to several dozen sites, including Classical.com, Rhapsody, Zune, and Verizon Wireless, to name but a few.

If the final days of the CD are not eagerly anticipated by label managers, it’s still a topic for contemplation and ongoing discussion.

Earlier this year, James Ginsberg of Cedille was asked to speak on a panel about the future of recorded media at a Chicago conference of the Music Library Association. There was nothing particularly bold or newsworthy when Ginsberg said to the group, “In the next decade, the CD will become to downloading what the LP became to the CD in the 1980s.” But he hastened to add, “Our production practices won’t change at all. We’ll continue to produce recordings of the highest quality of which we are capable.”

Such statements may be self-evident at this point, but a lot of details remain unsettled. Ginsberg’s colleagues express a wide variety of insights and concerns about the current importance of downloading and what needs to happen before it becomes the dominant or exclusive vehicle for sales and distribution of contemporary music.

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The website for Mode Records is as graphically compelling as their CD covers, but the site’s merchandise remains physical CDs.

Brian Brandt at Mode says that downloads have grown but “are not quite making up the slack in CD sales” brought about from the disappearance of stores. Al Margolis, who manages Pogus, XI, Deep Listening and Mutable Music, agrees and says, “Early on digital was extra money, but now (those funds) are needed.”

Margolis says he has artists who swear by downloads but also insist upon having a physical CD of their music. While expressing a bit of nostalgia himself, Margolis looks forward to how downloading will alleviate the difficulty of maintaining inventories of slow-selling product and also solve the regularly occurring dilemma of whether or not to repress older titles when stock gets depleted. “What do you do with titles that are 10, 11, 12, or 15 years old and finally selling out? Do you let them go out of print or make another 1,000 pieces?”

“Two things still have to happen” for digital downloads to become the norm, says Susan Bush of Albany. The first, she says, is greater acceptance of the technology. “There are people who don’t know how or don’t want to know how to use a computer. But that’s almost always a function of age and will decrease over time. The other thing is that downloads must improve in sound quality and speed. That will make the shift to digital complete. But we’ll probably still do some CDs, just one at a time.”

Becky Starobin at Bridge also notes the continued need for hard product and expresses concern about sound degradation.

“CDs are still very important, not only because of the actual physical sales which are holding steady, but also because it’s useful for composers and performers to have physical product available at concerts,” she says. “And it’s important for people to hear, especially in particularly complex music, a format that gives the full palette of sound. It works against the music to hear it in the diminished quality that you get by lower resolution and listening with ear buds.”

It’s the loss of liner notes and photos that concerns Charles Amirkhanian of Other Minds. “We need to find a way to have booklets and other printed materials downloadable and easily printed. It’s no fun to sit around and download and print these materials (the way it is now). It’s cheaper and easier to buy them as a kit. I think that’s an age thing and an intellectual thing,” he says. “Everything on my label is available on digital download and the income from that goes up each year, but it’s still not substantial. There may not be many brick-and-mortar stores, but people are still buying CDs all over the world.”

When or if CDs disappear, there will still be a need for record labels, according to Paul Tai of New World. “Anybody can set up a shop on the web and hock their stuff,” he says. “But there’s hundreds or thousands doing that already, so how do you make yourself heard? Labels provide the platform. We still have a certain authority and people will pay attention if you’re on New World or Bridge or Mode or Albany.”

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Perhaps the largest platform for recordings of American music is the Naxos American Classics line. But it’s a relatively minor subset within the 22-year-old company founded by German-born Klaus Heymann, who lives in Hong Kong. A multi-million dollar behemoth, Naxos is nevertheless known as a “budget” label, since its sales price is $8.99 for CDs (or $5.99 for album-length downloads at iTunes).

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The Naxos Music Library makes available to subscribers more than 492,600 tracks of music culled from over 34,610 CDs, with 500 new CDs added every month.

Composer Sean Hickey is the national sales and business development manager for Naxos’s U.S. operations. Working out of his home in Brooklyn, he supervises a sophisticated online marketing apparatus for new releases and is part of an international committee that decides what’s to be released on the American Classics imprint. Begun 12 years ago, the series features about 300 titles, including big orchestral recordings of Adams, Glass, and Corigliano, as well as Harris, Ives, and Thomson. But there are also discs of chamber and solo music by Paul Moravec, Roberto Sierra, and Leon Kirchner, plus band music of Sousa, piano works of MacDowell, and on and on.

“We look for things that will sell and things that will augment the catalog in a meaningful way,” says Hickey of the American Classics line. “We also want relationships with ensembles or composers or artists who are able to help spread the message of the release. We develop a ton of marketing materials, none more so than with the American Classics.” These include the weekly Naxos podcast, which Hickey says is the most popular classical music podcast, plus “interactive e-cards,” basically emails about new titles with links to streaming videos, sound samples, and the like.

Besides having a variety of in-house series, like American Classics, Naxos is a distributor in both retail and digital realms, and it maintains the Naxos Music Library. The latter provides subscribers with access to more than 450,000 tracks of music from more than 30,000 CDs, the majority on Naxos but also from other independent labels as well. (The tracks are available for streaming, which in contrast to downloading prevents the user from saving the recording on a hard drive or burning it to a CD.)

According to Hickey, The Naxos Music Library has a subscriber base of more than 1,200 institutions, most of them colleges and universities. Students from these schools are allowed full access to the library—bringing the total individual users to around 100,000. Frequently professors provide playlists as part of the curriculum for music courses. Such penetration to young listeners has meant that Naxos’s reputation as an online provider has largely overtaken its once dominant presence in stores.

“I’ve been in this business 16 or 17 years now and came to know Naxos through record stores and those seas of white covers,” says Hickey. “But now people in their 20s don’t have that reference. At this year’s American Library Association convention, the Naxos Music Library manager had a display of compact discs and three different people come up and said, ‘I didn’t know you did CDs.’”

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DRAM, a subscription service available only to institutions, offers tracks from 2,300 albums from 15 independent labels.

A corollary to the Naxos library that began with an exclusively American music focus is DRAM. (Originally an acronym for Database of Recorded American Music, its purview of material has expanded beyond the United States since its founding in 2001, and so the name is simply DRAM.) It is administered by New World Records and subscriptions are available to institutions only, whereas the Naxos library also makes subscriptions available to individuals.

Comprised of 2,300 albums, DRAM includes the full catalogs of New World, CRI, and a dozen or so other independent labels. In April, DRAM added to its holdings for the first time a complete archive of one composer’s music—that of electronic music composer Jon Appleton, through an agreement with Dartmouth College.

As the DRAM website states, the idea of a streaming library of digital recordings allows institutions “to free up storage space, reduce collection costs and labor, ensure against damage or loss and increase accessibility to materials.” These are benefits that surely will appeal to an increasing number of consumers over time.

Net labels—record labels with no records, so to speak—actually already exist in profusion in the realm of ambient/electronic music. It’s a natural place for such a movement to start, since electronic music doesn’t require costly recording sessions with pesky live musicians. The composer is the performer, and the composition and the master are the same.

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Disquiet is an online portal for electronic music disseminated via mp3s.

Marc Weidenbaum, a San Francisco writer and editor is an avid follower of this cyber scene, which he chronicles on his blog Disquiet.com. “Net labels are an amazing expression of enthusiasm for making content and sharing what you do,” he says.

According to Weidenbaum, some net labels do charge for downloads but streaming music for free is the norm. “With mp3 files you have to put them on a device, but now I can stream things on my iPhone or on the Android Phone, so the difference has become moot,” says Weidenbaum. “A lot of record labels have essentially become radio stations because you go to their websites and they’re streaming audio of their hits. They think of it as marketing, but at some point they may realize it’s providing an experience.”

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The “cover art” for the album Drone Level Orange by improvising ensemble Glissando Bin Laden, which has been released only as mp3 downloads made available to listeners with or without a donation on Carrier Records.

Weidenbaum’s thinking goes even further, but his vision of completely free access to music may provide little solace to composers or label managers. “Truly outward bound artistic expression is usually not financially rewarding,” he says. “People learn that the music they love does not lead to fortune. Once you take money off the table, it becomes a more open opportunity.”

“I interviewed John Zorn when he left Nonesuch, about 17 years ago,” continues Weidenbaum, “and he said there’s a difference between loving music and loving records.”

That’s a distinction that all of us will soon be confronting.

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Joseph Dalton
Photo by Timothy Cahill

Joseph Dalton has been covering the arts scene in New York’s Capital Region since 2002, primarily writing for the Albany Times Union. Many of these essays have been collected in the book Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region, published in 2008. Dalton is the former executive director of Composers Recordings, Inc. (CRI), where he produced about 300 recordings of contemporary music. He was also director of a research project on the effects of AIDS on American music which was published in an online report by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS.