Downloads, downloads, downloads

I am fully aware that I’m ploughing a lonely furrow about all this, but I’ll keep plugging away nonetheless just in case there may be some conversions, in which case there will at least be some information here in a readily accessible place. Anyway, the reason for yet another blog entry about musical downloads is that, hot on the heels of the last one, two much-admired recording labels have joined the fray and are now offering their catalogues as downloads.

The first (within days of my discovery of Qobuz) is Hyperion the great British independent label. Visiting this site has long been part of my download experience anyway, since Hyperion already provided the best background details about their recordings of any label, including full booklet notes downloadable as PDFs. So I would combine an iTunes download of a Hyperion album with a visit here to obtain the booklet. Now, without any hype or any flashing banners on the site, simply by a restrained addition of a new menu item and an option to ‘Show download options’, Hyperion has become a one-stop shop — and an excellent one.

As I said, the Hyperion site was already a good one, remarkable for its attention to detail and its inclusion of much more information than is usual, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that they’d do something special when they decided to provide a download service. This is most certainly what they have done: do something special. For starters, they provide both MP3s and lossless versions to download. The lossless format is FLAC, an open-source, lossless encoding method which reduces file size but still reproduces true CD-quality sound when played back. Providing lossless files is becoming more and more the norm at download sites, but what’s very, very different about Hyperion’s approach is that they provide the lossless version at no extra cost. This is a big thing! (I’m still glad to have found Qobuz, but things have become less attractive there since the end of their special offer which made lossless downloads available for the same price as MP3s. Whereas both download qualities were previously available for €9.99, the price of a standard lossless download at Qobuz has now increased to €12.99!)

But a surprisingly generous pricing policy is not the only thing which is good about Hyperion’s implementation of downloading. Every aspect is well thought out, very user-friendly, and excellently done. A nice touch is that three levels of download are available: (1) complete album; (2) complete works within an album (e.g. on a CD consisting of, say, a number of string quartets, each quartet is available to download as a separate entity); and (3) individual tracks. Finally, Hyperion already offered bulk discounts on purchases of physical CDs, and they have extended this to downloads also. The bottom line is that I will no longer use iTunes for my Hyperion downloads. From now on it’s straight to the mother ship!

The second label to recently join the download band-wagon is Dacapo Records. This is another site which has long been on my bookmarked list, one which I visit at least once a month to check new releases. My most recent visit was last night, and that’s when I discovered that Dacapo have also launched a download facility. They’ve done it much more dramatically than Hyperion did, with a completely re-designed site immediately signaling that something has changed. It took me a moment to realise what the change was, but once I did I spent far too long browsing and then far too much adding things to my virtual basket and finally pressing the Buy button.

I have to say, though, that I can’t see myself buying much direct from Dacapo. Their pricing policy is a bit crazy, quite frankly. As with Hyperion and Qobuz, Dacapo offer their downloads in alternative formats. As well as MP3s, they provide CD-quality lossless, and in some cases also go one step further and include what is becoming known as Studio Master quality (basically, the original digital files from which their CDs are produced: these are better than CD quality, but are also sunstantially larger files than either MP3 or CD-quality lossless). This is where the problem arises. Dacapo immediately get off on the wrong foot by asking €11 for an MP3 download of a single album, as opposed to the €9.99 which has more or less become the industry standard thanks to iTunes. Unlike the wonderful guys at Hyperion, Dacapo then pile insult on injury and ask higher prices for the other formats: €14 for CD-quality lossless, and a whopping €20 for Studio Master!

Dacapo’s download facility was launched at the beginning of December, and they’re celebrating with a range of special offers during December — all downloads are half price for the entire month, and there is also a 3-for-the-price-of-2 promotion which applies right across the shop, whether Downloads, CDs, DVDs, SACDs or Boxed Sets. It is only because of the half-price promotion that I added some stuff to my basket and pushed that dreaded Buy button. As I said, I doubt I’ll make a habit of buying here, especially when most of the Dacapo catalogue is available in the iTunes Store. I’ll still check out the site for new releases and to obtain the liner notes which are now being provided for the first time. Still, even if Dacapo have decided to price themselves out of the market, the very fact that they’ve joined the download bandwagon is significant.