By now you've heard all about Deutsche Grammophon's swanky new e-commerce web site DG Web Shop, which was launched on Wednesday. Alex Ross reported promising results from an initial test drive. A.C. Douglas quoted part of a TechCrunch article that was helpful regarding nerd specs (320 kbps encoding, DRM free), if not especially informed about the living status of classical music. Tim Rutherford-Johnson and Caleb Deupree also posted valuable perspectives.
I've been playing around with the site since the media preview on Monday, and I have to say that I'm mightily impressed. Indie labels like Naxos and Chandos developed effective web models far earlier, of course. But when you factor in the richness of the DG catalog, smart design and superior sound, Deutsche Grammophon has basically knocked this one out of the park.
Inspired by Alex (and, of course, a recent concert by the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall) I chose György Kurtág's Stele for my initial test drive. I decided to download the entire album, which also includes Kurtág's Grabstein für Stephan and Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen.
I first tried to download the album with DG's Download Manager, a Java application that performs a lot like the eMusic Download Manager: once a track has completely downloaded to your hard drive, you can listen to it immediately while the rest of the album continues to download. On my first attempt, everything except Gruppen (the largest file) arrived without any difficulty; I retrieved the missing file via a direct download link from the web site. (A third alternative allows you to download complete albums as zipped files, an option I haven't tested.)
Like Alex, on playback I was blown away by the rich sound. File size is certainly an issue, but so far you can't have it both ways: purists who have long complained about compressed formats will have to get used to sacrificing storage space in order to hear the music in the manner to which they're accustomed.
I made two more purchases on Wednesday, both to continue testing the shop and to bone up on a few pieces I'd be hearing in a concert later that night: Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Berg's Chamber Concerto.
For the Schoenberg, I opted to buy the complete album for $10.99 -- a massive savings over buying just the single work (21 tracks at $1.29 apiece). I used the Download Manager and got the entire package with no fuss at all. The Berg work was part of a classic album, but I didn't have an immediate need for the three Stravinsky pieces that make up the bulk of its program. I purchased the three Berg tracks individually and downloaded them directly from the web site; again, no problem.
One of the most attractive features of the site has not yet been addressed as far as I can tell: Once you've bought something, it remains permanently on account. Want to download your purchased files to multiple machines? Or perhaps you lost some authorized files in a hardware wipeout? No problem. Sign in, go to "My Downloads," and everything you've paid for is waiting for you.
A DG representative with whom I corresponded via e-mail confirmed that this was indeed the case. But I also proved it for myself. I burned a disc of files downloaded to my office computer to take home on Wednesday, but somehow managed to miss Berg's Chamber Concerto. At home, I logged into my account on the DG site and downloaded those files again, directly into my shiny new laptop. Mission accomplished.
That's no minor detail, but rather a matter of trust that goes above and beyond DRM-free files. To illustrate, if I went over to Alex's palacial abode and signed onto the DG site from his computer, nothing at all would prevent me from "gifting" him all the tracks I've purchased, apart from my own sense of propriety.
At this point, DG is apparently willing to take it on faith that I won't do so. And since they control both the substance of properties I crave as well as access to them, it is presumably in my best interest to play by their rules. There are more than a few things to be learned from this model, I'm sure.
Like Caleb, I'm hoping that Deutsche Grammophon will eventually get around to uploading the genuine rarities in its rich catalog. I'm not exactly holding my breath for the "Avant-Garde" series he and his commentators mention, but I'd love to see some of the not-so-deep archives -- pieces that have actually appeared on CD however briefly, like the complete Henze symphonies and the LaSalle Quartet's recordings -- show up before too long.
Still, the site's initial offering provides fodder for serious contemplation and expenditure. Earlier today I responded to Marc Geelhoed's questionnaire regarding canonical recorded accounts as yet unheard by confessing that I'd never heard Mravinsky's DG recordings of Tchaikovsky's Symphonies Nos. 4-6 with the Leningrad Philharmonic. Thanks to the DG Web Store, that is no longer the case. (I can now firmly state that I still prefer Pletnev's miraculous Virgin Classics account of the "Pathetique" over any other, but I understand the fuss about Mravinsky.)
Michael Tippett - Piano Concerto; Fantasia on a Theme of Handel; Piano Sonata No. 1 - Steven Osborne; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins (Hyperion)
Jonny Greenwood - There Will Be Blood (original soundtrack) (Nonesuch; due Dec. 18)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Symphony No. 40; Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 4* - Elizabeth Schwarzkopf*, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bruno Walter (RN Music)
César Franck - Symphony in D minor; Ernest Chausson - Symphony in B-flat - Liège Philharmonic Orchestra/Louis Langrée (Accord)
Radiohead - In Rainbows (W.A.S.T.E. download)
Fripp & Eno - Beyond Even (1992-2006) (DGM/Opal)
Osvaldo Golijov - Youth without Youth (original soundtrack) (Deutsche Grammophon; due Dec. 11 -- but already available via the DG Web Store)
Dave Douglas and Keystone - Moonshine (Greenleaf download)
Pat Metheny with Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez - Day Trip (Nonesuch; due Jan. 29)