Magnatune certainly take an alternative position, saying on its web site...
"We're a record label. But we're not evil.
We call it "try before you buy." It's the shareware model applied to music. Listen to 373 complete MP3 albums we've picked (not 30 second snippets). We let the music sell itself, because we think that's the best way to get you excited by it. Our selection is intentionally small: we never waste your time with mediocre music.
If you like what you hear, download an album for as little as $5 (you pick the price), or buy a real CD, or license our music for commercial use. Artists keep half of every purchase. And unlike most record labels, our artists keep all the rights to their music. No major label connections and no venture capital. We are not evil"
Behind the clever words there is some interesting music. Magnatune say 50% of its sales are classical, and their list includes Trevor Pinnock (Rameau Les Cyclopes and Handel Tamerlano with the English Concert), Dufay Collective (see picture below), Leon McCawley (Schumann piano music), American Baroque, New York Consort of Viols, Daniel Ben Pienaar (playing the complete Bach 48 on piano) and the Brook Street Band.
The label's founder John Buckman gave some useful statistics at the recent Audio Engineering Society's 20th Conference in Cambridge, as reported in the July Gramophone. He claimed that 64% of Amazon's sales come from products selling 20,000 units or less, and that 25% of iTune's sales are from classical titles (see my post LSO Live available from iTunes). The last metric is heartening if correct, but I find it surprising and certainly at variance with industry trends.
Magnatune deserve credit for producing a model web site which explains in plain English what they are trying to do (unlike the RIAA/BPI lobby), and they do seem to have an understandable business model. The artists biographies on the web site are also excellent. Well worth visiting are the two blogs on the site. Founder's Blog is John Buckman's own blog, some good stuff there. London Blog is John's wife personal blog of an expatriate American facing the horrors of London life. It does have the mandatory pictures of cats (is On An Overgrown Path the only blog never to have featured a cat post?) and family etc. There is probably a simple reason why John Buckman seems to be a straightforward and communicative soul, he plays the viola de gamba and lute.
Elsewhere just down the A11 road from On An Overgrown Path's tower block Cambridge UK based CacheLogic, a technology company specialising in web traffic and network management gives an interesting perspective on the sheer volume, and importance, of file sharing activity on the internet, and why the classical music sector cannot ignore it. Its web site is a good source for news on file sharing technologies. On it CacheLogic reports:
'Traffic analysis (research in 2003 and 2004)) has shown that peer-to-peer traffic volumes are at least double that of http (normal web page acces) during the peak evening periods, and as much as tenfold at other times. At any point in time there are six million users logged on to peer-to-peer networks."
While in yesterday's Observer respected technology commentator John Naughton gave the 'moderate' response to last week's US Supreme Court ruling on the Grokster case. The headline 'File-sharing lives on. Honest' sums up his viewpoint neatly.
On An Overgrown Path says the rate of change in the recorded classical music distribution model is accerlerating, and it is good to see innovative new players like Magnatune appearing. They bring repertoire which has some real authority, and are constructively trying to tackle the 'try before you buy' versus 'pay to hear' conflict. But the fragmentation in this sector is a worrying trend. Will any of these players achieve the critical mass needed to have a real impact on the market? It is a concern that the small players are getting smaller, leaving the market increasingly vulnerable to the strategies of the major RIAA/BPI record companies (see story on BPI fight to reduce online royalties) and the BBC with their free classical MP3 initiative.
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