Web site keeps classical CDs in the mix
By John von Rhein
So you think the classical recording business is dead in the water? Think again. The recent reissue of 55 out-of-print Chicago Symphony Orchestra titles by the online classical music store ArkivMusic points up how Web-based options are helping to fill the void created by the shuttering of Tower Records and other retail shops that once devoted extensive shelf space to classical music.
New classical titles produced by the major record companies Universal (Decca, DG, Philips), Sony BMG and EMI have shrunk to a trickle even as numerous smaller independent labels, with lower overhead and no expensive artists under contract, continue to issue a steady stream of new releases. For the majors, repackaging readily marketable older titles and chopping them into gimmicky compilation packages bearing such titles as "Ultimate Classical Chill Out" continue unabated.
Meanwhile, the Goliaths of the industry are sitting on vaults bulging with older recordings that have been deleted from the catalog because they haven't met the corporate bean counters' sales criteria. Most of these recordings the companies have shown little or no interest in reissuing.
So how do classical consumers get their hands on these lost recordings? The answer is only a mouse-click away.
ArkivCDs are deleted or otherwise hard-to-find recordings that ArkivMusic makes available to its customers as "production on demand" compact discs. The company has a database of nearly 3,000 such recordings. Potential customers navigate to the ArkivMusic.com Web site, search the available titles and place their order. Recordings are packaged in standard jewel boxes with the original cover art and are shipped by mail.
Of course, ArkivMusic also deals in new product, plenty of it, maintaining a database of more than 87,000 CD, DVD, Super Audio CD and DVD Audio titles. Orders are filled by a network of some 20 distribution centers in the U.S. and Canada, which claim to stock virtually everything that's currently in print.
According to ArkivMusic's sales figures, its sales in 2006 totaled about $7 million, making the company one of the biggest online vendors of classical recordings in the country, alongside Amazon and Tower's Web operation. The firm sold more than 1 million classical recordings, in all formats, since its founding in 2002.
Eager for a slice of the action, Naxos of America recently launched its own online boutique, naxosdirect.com, stocked with more than 5,000 albums from its own Naxos budget label and its distributed label partners. But it doesn't deal in custom orders as does ArkivMusic.
ArkivMusic was launched by its president, Eric Feidner, a former manager of the now-defunct Tower Records store in Midtown Manhattan, and two partners, including his twin brother, Jon Feidner, who serves as general manager. Eric runs the business out of his home office in Wilton, Conn. The firm has a staff of 15 full-time employees who also operate from their residences in various parts of the country.
"So the company is quite virtual and, I think, highly functional," he says. "Lean and mean."
Production-on-demand ArkivCDs are replicated from the original digital or analog-era master tapes, which are licensed from their respective record companies for fees Feidner declines to cite. The components of each disc are stored on servers in a digital format, but the CDs are produced only at the time consumers request them through the Web site.
"An efficient system to make older recordings available cost-effectively" is how Feidner describes his operation.
Of course, manufacturing CDs one by one is more expensive than pressing them en masse. ArkivMusic charges its customers between $14.99 and $16.99 per disc, a few dollars more than one would ordinarily pay for a new top-line CD through other online stores.
Listening to customers
But the sound quality of the custom Arkiv discs I've heard is excellent -- fully comparable to that of the original CDs -- and many titles come with reproductions of the original booklets. (Customer complaints have prompted ArkivMusic to add liner notes and texts to some earlier reissues that did not include them.)
With its vast discography, the Chicago Symphony was an obvious peg for ArkivMusic to hang its ambitious reissue program. The company added 41 out-of-print CSO titles to its on-demand catalog in November and is making 14 more available this summer. Decca, DG and Sony BMG (which includes recordings made by Columbia and RCA) are represented, and so is EMI Classics, which signed a licensing agreement with ArkivMusic in May.
For the majors, who stand to make modest sums for licensing their back catalogs without spending a cent on manufacturing and marketing the reissues, it's a win-win situation. No wonder EMI President Costa Pilavachi calls ArkivMusic "an extraordinary resource for the world of classical music today."
Selling less of more
Because they cater to a niche market (including older classical nostalgists who came of age during the era of long-playing records), none of Arkiv's on-demand CDs is going to sell in numbers anywhere near those of a new pop album. Feidner defines a top-selling Arkiv disc as any title that sells 100 units in one month, 400 to 500 units in a year.
Still, of the 3,000 or so older recordings Archiv has made available to date, 90 percent have seen sales activity, he reports. As for the rest of the company's online catalog, "there is nothing, no matter how obscure, that we've put out and made available that has not found a consumer somewhere," he says.
Among the top-selling CSO recordings issued by ArkivMusic in recent months are an RCA set of Mahler's Third Symphony and a DG collection of contemporary works by Elliott Carter, John Cage, Milton Babbitt and Gunther Schuller. Both discs are conducted by former Ravinia music director James Levine.
ArkivMusic highlights selected titles in its weekly e-newsletter, sent to 58,000 customers, and on its home page. It also has partner agreements with more than 20 commercial and public radio stations around the country, including WQXR in New York, WCRB in Boston and WFMT-FM 98.7 in Chicago. The company links up to the playlists of its marketing partners so that their Web sites provide links to the CDs they play that are available at ArkivMusic.
"Our production-on-demand CDs thus give us a way to satisfy listeners who want to buy what they've heard on the air," Feidner explains.
Click on a link at the WFMT Web site and you can browse the ArkivMusic catalog, and even purchase featured recordings.
Peter Whorf, WFMT's program director, stresses that the station's partnership with ArkivMusic is still developing. "We are working on ways that WFMT can collaborate with ArkivMusic to offer the most complete services possible to locate and purchase new and classic recordings," he says. "We're currently tweaking some of those areas."
ArchivCDs are pitched to a choosy segment of an already specialized listening population -- namely, those who seek sound quality to match the musical quality.
Their wares find favor with classical buffs who refuse to download music off the Internet because of limited selection and because most of it suffers from a compressed dynamic and frequency range.
But the greatest selling point is the physical product itself: In-house surveys prove that ArkivMusic customers overwhelmingly favor recordings they can actually hold in their hands and file away in their collections.
"Contrary to what seems to be happening in the pop music world, our customers have quite clearly told us that the physical CD is still their overwhelmingly preferred medium for purchase," says Feidner. "These people really want the actual disc itself on their shelves because they don't feel the music sitting on their hard drive or a mobile device is really permanent."
Thousands of titles
Given the vast amount of recorded music that has been deleted since CD sales began to slow in the late 1990s, ArkivMusic has a mother lode of treasures to draw upon over the coming years -- or as long as the CD remains the preferred medium for classical mavens. The company already has licensed 7,000 to 10,000 classical titles and plans to make many more available.
"We are maybe a third of the way to our initial objective of putting out the appropriate recordings that have already been issued on compact disc," says Feidner. And that, he says, doesn't even include hundreds of thousands of recordings from the analog and monaural eras, many of them historic documents.
Where ArkivMusic goes from here will depend on consumer demand.
"In his book 'The Long Tail,' author Chris Anderson says that business in the future is about selling less of more," says Feidner. "That, to me, is today's classical record business in a nutshell. And ArkivMusic is its embodiment."
Credit: By John von Rhein, Tribune music critic
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