Since I last addressed high-quality classical downloads, so much has changed that I won't even bother to link to my earlier post on the subject. Unfortunately, it hasn't all be gain, as some prominent labels have dropped off the download map. But for the classical music lover, there are plenty of convenient and affordable opportunities for immediate gratification that don't compromise on sound quality.
Let me stress that last point. Sound quality matters. If you've been purchasing classical music downloads (or any music, really) from such prominent dealers as iTunes and Amazon, you are doing both the music and yourself a disservice. They only provide their digital music in mp3 format, a "lossy" audio format that degrades the music's resolution in order to shrink the audio files into the smallest possible size. While mp3 might be fine for casual listening or for streaming on Pandora, Spotify or other services, it's inadequate for any music you want to own and savor to its fullest. And despite what some listeners have told me, yes you can hear the difference. It's like choosing between VHS and Blu-ray for watching your favorite movie, or putting a reproduction of your favorite painting on your wall from a newspaper clipping vs. a fine art print. Go for the good stuff, people!
As for what flavor of "good stuff" you go for — well, there the choices can get confusing. There are a virtual alphabet soup of "lossless" audio formats out there, such as FLAC, AAC, WMA and WAV. While some formats work on some audio devices and others don't on other devices, basically, each of these formats does a good job of preserving the music in its original, pristine digital state. And each is far, far superior to lousy-sounding mp3s — without costing much if anything more! OK, so the "lossless" formats, especially WAV, take up more space on your device's hard drive. Burn a CD and delete the original files if you have to. It's worth it. Now, that doesn't mean you have to go for the higher-priced, higher-bit-rate "audiophile" versions available from some sites, unless you're really an audiophile. But if I ever find out that you've downloaded music you've enjoyed on NEPR as a crappy mp3, you can't be my friend again until you see the error of your ways. That's how seriously I take this.
So, let's survey the field, and see what's out there. I said before that some of the traditional "major" labels aren't currently available for downloads in the U.S.; these include Sony, RCA and EMI/Virgin Classics. Actually, a very select few titles on all these labels are downloadable from HD Tracks, mostly in relatively expensive "audiophile" versions, but otherwise, zilch. If anyone knows different, please let me know.
On the other hand, the world's foremost family of classical labels, Universal Classics, makes most if not all of its catalogue avaiable for FLAC download from the website of Deutsche Grammophon. Here you'll find not just DG and its vast discography, but also Decca (formerly known in the U.S. as "London") and its subsidiaries. The bummer here is that the albums are only available complete, not on a track-by-track basis. So if, for instance, you enjoyed one selection from a multi-disc album, you have to buy the whole thing just to get the selection you want. (Note, by the way, that the albums are priced for U.S. customers in British Pounds, which currenly convert as $1.60 for £1.)
But when it comes to the many fine independent labels that play an increasingly important role in the classical discography, choices abound. One of the best such choices, The Classical Shop, is owned by Chandos, the excellent British classical indie, but also offers many other labels from around the world. They also provide most of their stock in multiple audio formats, a plus if your device is finicky about its audio files. Another excellent site with multiple labels, eclassical is brought to you by the folks who run Bis, the fabulous Swedish label. While eclassical isn't as well-stocked as The Classical Shop, the former is easier to use than the latter, and prices its offerings in dollars for us math-challenged Yanks. Both sites, by the way, permit purchases of individual tracks, though buying the whole album is more economical.
For those who know their écoutez from their télécharger, the French site Qobuz has some otherwise hard-to-find items among its vast offerings (whole albums only, no separate tracks for high-quality downloads, but multiple file formats available). Unfortunately, many of the most desirable items in their catalogue are marked, "Ce produit n'est pas autorisé à la vente dans votre pays." In other words, we Americans are out of luck. Same goes for many titles from Presto Classical, though that still leaves lots of fine music available from them in FLAC format, by-the-track or whole-album. My suggestion is to comparison shop among all these choices, and get the best deal for the music you want. Yes, it means creating an account for each, with user name, password, etc. But that's the world we're in now, so if it's a choice between getting used to it and going without, I know which choice I'd make.
Finally, but hardly least importantly, many individual labels make their wares available for purchase and high-quality download through their own webistes. My perhaps not-quite-comprehensive list includes (in addition to those mentioned above) Analekta, Atma Classique, Cedille, Collegium, Hyperion, Linn, Melba and Nonesuch (older titles in mp3 only). But don't worry if I didn't list your favorite indie label, such as Avie, Harmonia Mundi, Naïve or Naxos. Chances are it's available from one or more of the sites I mentioned earlier.
And a p.s. about album art and program notes: Some sites make these things part of your purchese via .pdf files, and some don't. But even for those that don't, you can often go to the original label's website and find what you want.
One further p.p.s: We'll deal some later time with the many orchestras and other musical organizations that provide downloads of their own performances on their websites. That's a whole 'nother source of fine music, worthy of its own blog entry.