Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Curious Case of

[UPDATE: I've created an eMusic playlist of lengthy single tracks here. The playlist is briefly described here.]

We live in a material world, so naturally the early stages of my love affair with the immaterial sounds of music quickly inspired a love for accumulating records. I amassed about 500 or so LP's before reluctantly switching over to the less tactile, but shinier CD format and amassed another 500 or so of those little discs. Curiously, as much money as I invested in these materials, I never cared much about audio quality. I was very proud when I arrived with saved cash in hand at a Service Merchandise to buy my first little Panasonic all-in-one record/cassette/radio player with its tinny, tiny little speakers. Proud, that is, until I happened to run into my high school band director, an audiophile whose questions about what I was buying had me soon pretending I had no interest in the Panasonic. (I slipped out with it after he left and never regretted the purchase.)

Through the CD years, I've never had anything more than unremarkable speakers and a weak, utilitarian amp/receiver; so, unlike many audio enthusiasts, I've had no trouble switching over to the inferior audio quality of the MP3 world. The convenience/flexibility factor is so great that I now spend probably 80% of my audio dollars at the iTunes store. There's a very small part of me that misses the thrill of 'holding' brand-new LP sleeves/CD jewel cases in my hands, and I'm mystified that program notes haven't been more routinely incorporated into the digital world. (What could be easier than slipping a little text into these files?) Still, the part of me that lives in a house that's too small for all of our accumulated possessions is just as happy to watch my collection grow by the invisible gigabyte rather than by inches on a shelf.

Of course, iTunes isn't perfect, but their classical catalog has gotten pretty deep. However, my post title refers to one of its quirkiest competitors, I'm now on my second go-around with the subscription-based model of eMusic. The biggest problem is that I hate the subscription model. This is both because of and in spite of all the years I spent as an off-and-on member of those old Columbia Record Club mail-order deals - the ones where they sent you a record each month unless you told them not to - of course, I often forgot to tell them not to so they got a lot of return-to-sender packages from me - and yet they kept signing me up.

eMusic provides you with a certain number of tracks to download per month, and it's clear from their setup that they wouldn't mind if you forgot to get your downloads in every now and then - the credits don't carry over to the next month, which is insane. But that's just the beginning of the insanity. What really makes no sense is that every track is of equal value, regardless of track length. As a result, a 1-hour recording of the Goldberg Variations would cost 32 track credits, while an 85-minute Mahler symphony might cost only 5 credits. The company apparently has done well enough to suggest that many are content with this model, but it drives me crazy as I find myself getting obsessed with finding the longest tracks to maximize value.

In a way that's silly, because they're already offering a better deal than iTunes. A basic subscription costs $10 for 30 tracks/month. Thus, even those overpriced Goldberg Variations would cost about $10, which is what an iTunes album usually costs. Also, eMusic offers less compressed (higher quality) MP3s, and there's no copy protection built into their files. Still, it just seems wrong to download a 2-minute track when it costs the same as a 30-minute track. And, in the classical world, it turns out there are quite a few long tracks available that become superbargains.

So it is that in my two brief membership periods (which have included two bundles of free tracks, first to get me to try and then to come back and try again), I've paid $20 to download 105 tracks totaling more than 16 hours of music. Honestly, I feel kind of guilty about that and will probably stay on for another month or two at least so I'm not completely gaming the system. However, the system is was it is, and I haven't done anything sneaky. I've just done a good job of finding all the long tracks that appealed to me. In fact, in trying to finish up the bunch of tracks I just had available to me, I finally gave in and downloaded a few albums with some very short tracks, partly just to get it over with. Still, I've averaged more than 9 minutes per track.

One thing this reveals is that eMusic is not really designed for classical rep, which is much more likely to have these marathon chunks of music; if classical was their main market, I'm sure the pricing structure would change. It's actually clear in lots of ways that eMusic isn't set up well for the classical world; the search/browse process is far too clumsy and there are all sorts of inconsistencies in how works, performers, composers, titles, etc. are listed. For example, it's not at all unusual for a composer to be listed as the performer. iTunes isn't perfect in this respect, but I find it much easier to use. Of course, iTunes also offers access to most of the main labels, while eMusic features an eclectic blend of mostly budget and independent labels that rarely feature the most well-known performers. However, the nature of the classical business is that that's not necessarily a bad thing, if one chooses wisely. (Just ask Joyce Hatto's husband.)

My all-time prize is a recording of Terry Riley's In C that clocks in at 46 minutes. Well, given that it's a pretty monotonous piece, maybe that's not the best value. I've also come away with 20+ minute recordings of Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht, Strauss's Metamorphosen, Beethoven's Eroica Variations, Bloch's Schelomo, and Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead. Oh, and Leon Fleisher's recent recording of the last Schubert sonata has a 20-minute first movement, although its other three movements (which I did stoop to buy) only average about 7 minutes apiece.

I haven't had 16 hours to hear everything in full, but among my favorite recent downloads is the Ravel Quartet, played gorgeously by the Borromeo Quartet. I'm embarrassed that I've heard them perform live far too seldom given that they play many free concerts as quartet-in-residence at the New England Conservatory. One of the few albums that I downloaded in full (in spite of many short tracks) features Sergey Schepkin, a fellow DMA student from my NEC days. I don't mind admitting that Sergei plays at a level I can only dream of, and his disc of Debussy (Book I preludes, etc.) is some of the most compelling playing I've heard in a long time. It's not at all sentimental, but it's also never remotely dull - he plays with such command and vision.

The great deals have also made it easier to take a chance on some unusual items, including a duo-piano version of Bolero, a solo-piano version of The Rite of Spring (only 2 tracks total!), and an orchestration of Schubert's sublime F Minor Fantasy. Oh, I also picked up a version of the Schubert in its original 2-piano setting. 17 minutes each - 2 tracks total. I could go on and on, but the point is that . . . well, I guess it's both that I've really enjoyed my eMusic experience, and it drives me crazy. I can't imagine staying on for all that long, but maybe I'll keep finding things to keep me coming back. A problem is that, especially in the standard rep, eMusic generally won't have the ideal recording. On the other hand, I don't mind picking up an extra Don Juan for what amounts to about 25 cents.

Other highly recommended eMusic picks: Jamie Buswell playing Barber's Violin Concerto, Julia Fischer playing Tchaikovsky's Valse-Scherzo, The Dale Warland Singers sing Ives' Psalm 90. In fact, I came to bury eMusic, but on reflection I should be much more grateful. Originally my subject heading was going to be "eMusic.con" (clever, huh?), but I wasn't sure if it was they or I doing the conning, so it was too confusing.

[P.S. It is annoying that eMusic will sometimes have tracks that are unavailable. Most oddly, this happened with a Vaughan Williams' symphony where I downloaded three of the four movements, only to realize that the 4th was never going to be available. I ended up getting that track the old-fashioned way - I checked the disc out from my local library and ripped it onto my computer. For the record, I don't make a habit of doing that with library discs. I've got my pride.]

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