The original promise of digital music distribution was supposed to be greater variety, the availability of out-of-print music, communities serving specific interests that had been under-served by mass culture, high-quality audio, and lots of choice. Slowly, I think, that promise is finally being delivered. Readers of a music technology site may not think much about Josquin motets (well, actually, I do, though I don’t know if I’m typical). But we have talked about a gradual shift away from mass-market, proprietary distribution as with the original iTunes Music Store to more choices of stores, DRM-free music that’s mobile across devices, and, most importantly, more choice in music. What’s amazing is how this trend is accelerating.

This week, Deutsche Grammophon, the classical music recording giant that’s owned by Universal Music Group, launched its own online music store. And there are a number of things that make it unique:


  • The store is truly international: No, really international. Not the US and Canada international. The store will sell to 42 countries, and will extend to Southeast Asia including China, India, Latin America, South Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe including Russia. Two words: ’bout time.
  • There’s real variety: In a genre badly abandoned by an entire industry recently — long before Napster, in fact — DG has put up a serious catalog. And in a big change, instead of publishing a subset of their current catalog, they’ve actually re-released “out-of-print” albums. Lest you think I’m shilling for UMG, they’ve released a couple of my personal faves I only had access to on vinyl, and made contemporary music far more accessible.
  • Big player, small market: It’s owned by UMG, so this is no indie label — in fact, on the contrary, it’s encouraging to see a big media company let the niche division move forward instead of focusing on what’s popular in the mass market.

I got a chance to talk to Jonathan Gruber, VP New Media, Classics & Jazz, Universal Music Group International. He’s on-message as far as UMG’s pitch, as you’d expect, but he had some interesting details to share that should please classical fans, in particular. (And I know there are quite a few who read this site — no surprise, as classically-trained composers were among the first to embrace, and to have access to, electronic music technology.)

CDM: I was really excited to see albums re-released that were out of print … what kinds of albums fit into this category? What sorts of music might you anticipate releasing in this way in the future from DG’s back catalog?

JB: The out of print albums now available on the DG Web Shop are from all across the wide spectrum of the DG catalog, including everything from one of the best ever Beethoven 5th Symphony interpretations from Carlo Maria Giulini and the LA Philharmonic; to wonderful Josquin Des Prez motet recordings, performed by the Orlando Concert; to Mozart Symphonies by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra; to tango albums by the latest generation of Buenos Aires musicians; the list goes on. Subsequent to the launch, approximately 1,000 “out-of-print” [albums] could be made available – DG will continue to digitize and to mine the archives for the best gems from its catalog, dusting them off for the download medium.

CDM: Classical music in general has suffered in sales, which has reduced new releases and back catalog choices, which reduces sales, and so on. So it’s perhaps even more encouraging to see classical distribution online in this way than other genres, especially with an enthusiast audience. What do you think this may mean for classical music fans?

JG: Our overall goal is to make classical music available to music lovers wherever there may be, whenever they want to experience it – anytime, anywhere and always in the best possible audio quality. This has been DG’s tradition – and will be its future.

In addition, we are convinced that we will attract a wider range of consumers, including the growing global downloading community that is open-minded to various styles of music – including classical music. The DG portal and Web Shop will be an entry door for them as well as a home to the existing classical music community. This group, for instance, feels more comfortable searching and making their choices online than being “overstrained” in a CD store, where the selection is either too much – which can be overwhelming – or too little. We need to do all we can to help these customers to find and then to pick the best music.

For everyone from the classical enthusiast to explorer to novice, the DG Web Shop brings high-quality audio, metadata/tagging, and search information to the world of classical music downloading – it will encourage, we hope, those who have not tried downloading yet to take the plunge; and those who have not explored classical music to do so online. What’s more, aside from downloading, the DG web site offers, now more than ever before, a tremendous resource of information on the tour activities of our artists, links to the artist web sites, to venues, opera houses and so on. It is a perfect place to start an exploration into the world of classical music.

CDM: Contemporary music has been even harder to find than classical music, especially here in the US. Will this store address contemporary music fans?

JG: Yes – the outstanding DG “20/21” series featuring all contemporary music is to be found in the shop, as are the recordings of contemporary composers like Osvaldo Golijov. We agree and have found that contemporary music benefits tremendously from online exposure. Plus, if you want to try just a bit of the music, to see what it is like, you can download individual tracks regardless of length on the DG Web Shop.

What went into the decision to choose 320 kbps? (That is, how do you decide between, say, 256 kbps and 320 kbps?) Are these VBR or CBR 320 kbps?

We wanted to get the balance right between the highest-quality encoding possible without sacrificing too much in terms of the download speed or interoperability issues that can come with other formats, so we went with CBR 320 kbps MP3.

Another issue with classical music on the mainstream, big bucket online stores has been difficulty searching for music and managing downloaded music because of poor metadata / tagging. What kinds of things will DG’s store offer that these outlets have not?

Downloads sold from the DG Web Shop contain the highest quality metadata and tagging, the best possible, to maximize ease of use and quality search and presentation, both before and after purchase. Here is an example of how the metadata and tags look for the first movement of the most recent Hélène Grimaud Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto:

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major Op. 73 – “Emperor” – 1. Allegro
Beethoven, Ludwig van
Hélène Grimaud [Piano] & Staatskapelle Dresden [Orchestra] & Wladimir Jurowski [Conductor]
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5; Piano Sonata No.28 in A, Op.101


I got a chance to play a bit with the new store. I have to say, as Web design goes, I’m not terribly impressed: navigation tools are scant, which is too bad — browsing can be as much fun as surfing, even online. But in terms of the product itself, the new site delivers. Pricing ranges from $/€1.29 for a full-length track to $/€11.99 for an album. There’s none of the bizarre, arbitrary pricing you find on sites like iTunes in the classical section. You can buy whole pieces, you can buy whole albums. Albums often come with PDF e-booklets, as well — it’d be great to see these standard, but at least many of the albums have them (almost none on iTunes do). This is the first time, I have to admit, that I’d think of buying classical and new music in electronic format. I hope DG continues to expand this, and builds in better browsing.

So, what’s the bigger picture? I do think this relates to far more than just DG and classical music. The trend I see: just as Napster motivated the music industry to take notice of digital distribution, Apple’s singular success with iTunes and iPod — and the control it affords Apple — could motivate labels to build better stores of their own. And there’s no way not to see that as a healthy trend. Sure, Universal’s CEO may be ranting about Coca-Cola and Li’l Abner metaphors, but his company is shrewdly making aggressive moves to connect music with listeners. That was, after all, the business they were supposed to be in the first place.

Now, if some of those obscure French labels will put some of their recordings online… who knows, maybe soon you’ll be buying Xenakis at Starbucks. (It’s what I like to play around the holidays. Great with egg nog.)

  • Hooray!

  • I am not sure if DG wants to submit this information, but I still would like to ask:

    In understand there is no DRM (in the form of copy protection in the file format), but is there "Watermarking" embedded in the actual audio? This technique would not prohibit copying, but could be used to track back the source of a potential mutliple-copy activity.

    Watermarking should theoretically be unnoticable, but has shown some audible artefacts especially with solo clarinet in our internal classical music listening tests scenarios.

  • Good question, Karl; I've forwarded that to DG. Do you have documentation of your listening tests?

  • mat

    Nice development. However, I see one snag: the format. MP3 is of course not of the same qualitiy as CD-format, and I fear you can hear that in classical music, much more than in most other genres.

    Could it be that the reason DG only offers MP3 320 is that in this way there still is additional value in the physical CD?

  • Peter

    Overheard at the watermarking technology lab…

    "Dave, could you adjust that noise-shaping algorithm so that it only affects the clarinet?"

    "Good idea Eddie! Everyone hates the clarinet!"

  • The problem is, there isn't a universally-compatible lossless format that would be small enough to be workable. (AAC lossless, FLAC, etc. are great but aren't supported by a lot of players and devices.) I think 320 kbps works reasonably well, even for classical music. And at least some of these albums aren't available on CD, so that's obviously not *their* reasoning (though customers may still find reason to buy a physical CD).

  • Ha!

    Or —

    "That's not artifacts from a noise-shaping algorithm for audio watermarking! That's my actual playing!"

    Hmm… career in stand-up, dead.

    "Take my contrabassoon — please!"

  • mat

    Yes Peter, of course you are right about the CDs not being availbale. But the fact DG does not offer (for a higher fee, of course) AAC lossless, is striking. Also striking is the radio button for "MP3 320" as download option. But here are no more options… May be they will come with lossless later on?

    Still, I am glad DG had made this step. And I hope other classical companies, especially those with a deep back catalog (RCA, EMI, Decca, etc) will follow.

  • Gogmagog


    I get a bit tired of hearing from people how lossy encoding, no matter how high the bitrate, detracts from the listening experience. 320kbps is extremely high quality. Do a search on Google for listening tests between encoded audio and CD audio. I think you'll find that, based on those tests, the vast majority of people out there cannot tell the difference between 256kbps audio and CD audio, let alone 320kbps.

    The human ear isn't perfect. No one's is. It has quirks, and MP3 encoding takes advantage of these quirks, removing the frequencies that the human ear isn't going to be able to hear anyway. Sure, everybody is made differently, but the chance that one will be able to tell the difference between 320kbps and CD audio seems extraordinarily small. Compare this to the number of so-called audiophiles out there complaining about how imperfect 320kbps audio is, and one can smell a hint of ca-ca in the air.

  • I tend to agree with Gogmagog, but anyone with a golden ear out there, want to pick out a few CDs, grab a friend to administer and maybe some golden-eared colleagues, and do some double-blind listening tests? (Which CDs would you pick?)

    It's true that other semi-scientific tests of this kind have in fact showed that once you hit 256kbps or 320 kbps (and notice they're using constant bit rate, so that's sustained at that compression throughput), you really won't notice. I definitely notice the difference with 128kbps AAC as on iTunes or 192kbps MP3, WMA as on some other stores, but 320 CBR, not so sure.

    That said, I'd love to have some listeners here do a test. 🙂

  • mat


    Well, I did such a test some time ago, and I could tell the difference (on a HiFi set, not on an iPod of course). But i admit; I am not sure which quality MP3 that is.

    But I will do the double blind test again. I have already registered (and already found some lovely tracks, Gundula Janowitz!!).

    What parts would I take for the test? obviously some tracks on CD I already have…

    OK, I'll think about it, and I will keep you informed… I hope Gogmagog is right.

  • te2rx

    double-blind listening tests have been done by sites like Hydrogen Audio

    generally tests at ultra high bitrates aren't done because it becomes impossibly difficult to pick out the differences. Go ahead and give it a shot though… an ABX tool (e.g. Foobar2000's) is like all you need.

  • voxish

    In response to Gogmagog, I get tired of the argument that "so-called audiophiles" and "golden ears" are raining on the parade. Even my beat up 47 year old ears can tell the difference. I don't even see the point of comparing MP3 to CD, which is another compromised format. The difference between CD and SACD is astonishing. Of course you need a very expensive system to hear it. But all this is irrelevant anyway, the whole reason for MP3's existence (bandwidth) is longer no longer an issue. DG's website says it is, but I think this has more to do with them saving money on server space than doing a favour to their customers. As for compatibility issues, if consumers demand a change it will come around. If we don't the big players will just dictate the standards. I cancelled my Emusic subscription yesterday and made it clear why I did so. MP3 is dead, (or should be) it's time to pick a new format and move on. My preference would be FLAC.

  • poopoo

    ..and i get tired of being told I need an expensive system to enjoy music.

    nice work by deutsche grammophon

  • On the hbdirect.com new site launched only yesterday, search and browse capabilities are powerful and detailed for classical music. There is a google search specifically for the classical music site which is so easy and fun to use. Or you can choose the browse and refine options which are extensive. You can choose to search or browse exclusively by digital downloads. Unfortunately, we have been limited to providing only links to the iTunes downloads, because of the DRM restrictions, and uncertain format of digital distribution in the future. We look forward to the opportunity to provide the highest quality downloads for all classical music, but we are waiting for the industry to make this option available to us.

  • cdmr

    Too bad about the price. $12 is too high for a download even at 320. I would have signed up and started buying today if albums had been $8 or $9. But maybe their core audience won't care about the price so much.

  • voxish

    <blockquote cite="..and i get tired of being told I need an expensive system to enjoy music.">

    That wasn't what I was getting at. I was simply arguing that there is a noticeable difference between formats. To hear the difference on a SACD you probably do need an expensive system, but I can tell the difference between MP3 and CD on my humble setup. My point was that there is no longer a need for MP3. With video moving towards high-def, I don't understand why audio has been moving backwards in quality. It doesn't make any sense to me.

  • Patrick

    The price is doubly underwhelming because many classical recordings (especially re-issues) are already available on CD through brick-and-mortar stores for $12 or less. It's problematic when digital delivery doesn't obviously outcompete your local BestBuy or other media mega-retailer.

  • voxish – would you care to describe the double blind test setup that you used to establish that you could hear the difference between high-bitrate MP3 and CD? ditto for the CD/SACD comparison.

    every published double blind study that i've seen so far indicates clearly that given a reasonably high bit rate (not even 320Kbps), there are very, very few individuals who can hear the difference.

  • voxish

    I recently had a listening session at Fidelio Audio in Montreal where we compared different formats, and no, it wasn't double blind, and it was on a system that I would never be able to afford anyway. I'll freely concede that my tests haven't been rigourous, but that wasn't the point I was trying to make. I just don't see the point of hanging on to MP3, it served a purpose when we were using dial-up modem connections and had limited drive space, but I think we've come to a point where more choices should be available. I'd like to see a high definition multi-channel download format and I'd prefer not to let an algorithm decide what I can and cannot here. I don't mean to piss people off about this, I respect whatever choices you make, I just think there should be more.

  • voxish – i totally agree with you about the long term destiny of MP3, but i prefer not to muddy the waters with unverifiable (and almost certainly false) claims about audible differences. the problem is that (a) its *not* true that the bandwidth problem has gone away and (b) there are now 100's of millions of portable music devices out there that will never be firmware upgraded to play anything else (even just plain WAV is too much for many of them). It will be at least 5 years before this situation changes.

    It saddens me very much that Ogg/Vorbis didn't win the "war" of compressed formats, but its clear with these new "DRM-free" sites now coming online that the battle is over (and lost).

  • voxish

    Paul – okay, I'll retract from my position that MP3 should be eradicated from the face of the earth 🙂

    I wasn't really advocating this, but I realize that the tenor of my statements might have suggested it. Your point is well taken that the bandwidth problem has not gone away. I was thinking the much same thing after my last post. MP3 certainly continues to be viable, but I think we're at the point where we can think about a new standard, and I'd like to see consumers push for what we'd like to see, rather than have it dictated to us by the industry.

    >almost certainly false

    hmmmm…. I'm gonna let that slide 😉

  • Wait a minute, Paul … I agree OGG/Vorbis faces some serious challenges, and this is hardly a win when everyone goes to MP3 as the lowest common denominator. But I would say these indie stores are a big step forward, not backward. The alternative is a bunch of proprietary, DRM-laden formats. If everyone is buying MP3s, it's not such a leap to buy OGG. It's a much bigger leap to go from buying from iTunes or one of the WMA purchase stores.

  • tim

    For fun and enlightenment I encoded 'Le Sacre du Printemps' (DG 415 979-2).

    For me the difference is big, even with my held-together-with-ducttape 4 Euro earphones. It is as if the orchestra were playing behind a wet curtain. In the more 'busy' parts the logic of the work is hard to follow (for example from 2min35sec to 2min50sec in 'Introduction').

    Note: Given that this was my first time encoding to mp3 (even had to install the program for it) I may have made some mistake, so here is the command I used:

    lame -q 0 -b 320 –cbr test.wav test.mp3

  • kickplate

    this is incredible news! i'm an opera singer and often, while i'm on the road and away from a decent classical cd store, i'll be asked to look at a piece of music, and will need to see or hear it right away to decide whether or not to take the prospective gig. itunes had a few things, but i always felt so fucked about purchasing classical music (especially vocal music) without the histories, essays, and translations included in the liner notes. the .pdf booklet is something the other digital services stupidly overlooked. of course it would be nice to have uncompressed formats available, even if at a premium, like beatport or stompy, but hopefully dg's business will grow to include it. for the time being, this is much better than the vacuum we've been experiencing since the classical cd retail business started to collapse.

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