Saturday, May 06, 2006

Classical 'CD' published online

It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last: a group of classical musicians have released an opera by Handel exclusively online.

The website on which it is released licenses its music to the public under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike stipulation which is the same as that of the blog you’re reading right now.

In other words, you can listen to a lo-fi version of the music for free through internet streaming, or pay to download a high-quality copy. You can buy a CD which will be made on demand when you order.

However, as liberating as this is for the music, I do have reservations about the quality of the product. It’s all very well to evangelise increased coverage for classical music, but its audience will still be very much the same: classical music lovers.

Given this, a couple of things need to be thought about. First: very few classical lovers currently have the ability to pipe a digital music file to their audiophile hifi equipment (or even their stereo). There are external ways to do it, but until they become standardised in computers and audiophile amps, this platform won’t flourish as much as it could.

Second: CD booklets matter to classical lovers. They want to know about the historical, societal and musical contexts of what they are listening to. They want information on the works, composers, performers and conductors. They want, in some cases, information about the instruments used and the recording venues and dates. And it has to be detailed. In the case of an opera, context alone won’t do; neither will just a libretto.

So far, what I’m seeing is that the digital equivalent of a good classical CD booklet is nowhere to be seen. Hyperion Records has its sleevenotes online, and it has a listening room where I can preview new releases before buying a CD to be played in my hifi. Until the improvements I’ve discussed above appear, this is what I’ll remain happiest with.

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