Classical search woes, plus iTunes rant

A helpful reader — after I’d complained (in an earlier post) about classical music search engines on the web — recommended Amazon’s advanced classical search. Certainly it offers more choices than the normal classical search, but…when I looked for Album/Work Title “Symphony” and composer “Beethoven,” the first thing that came up was Sarah Brightman’s greatest hits CD, with no symphonies or Beethoven anywhere on it.

And two days ago I was browsing on the new (and legal) Napster, which turns out to have more or less — or maybe exactly — the same classical music iTunes and BuyMusic.com have. As I rooted around, I came across all the Beethoven sonatas in the old and greatly respected Artur Schnabel performances. All of them! Ninety-nine cents per track.

There’s only one problem. What you get, when you look these up — and it’s the same on all three services I’ve mentioned — is a track listing. As follows (transcribed verbatim):

1  The Complete Piano Sonatas, I. Allegro

2  The Complete Piano Sonatas, II. Adagio

3  The Complete Piano Sonatas, III. Minuetto (Allegretto) & Trio

4  The Complete Piano Sonatas, IV. Prestissimo

5  The Complete Piano Sonatas, I. Allegro con brio

(etc.)

The title of the collection is identified…each individual movement is identified…but the sonatas themselves aren’t! The first four tracks are indeed the four movements of the first sonata, but the fifth track isn’t the first movement of the second one. It turns out to be the first movement of the third sonata. So good luck finding the sonata you’d like to buy, unless you know the tempo indications of all its movements (and have the patience to browse the whole collection, track by track).

And now for an iTunes rant. I said something nice about the software and the service in my earlier post. It is nice — within its notable limitations. Apple really is out to get you here; they’re even worse than Microsoft. Microsoft, some years ago, got people angry when it introduced a new music format, Windows Media, to compete with MP3 files, which were and still are the Internet standard. Microsoft upgraded its Windows Media Player, making it a serious competitor to the RealOne Player and MusicMatch, its main competition on PCs. But it sneakily made the Windows Media Player only able to create Windows Media files. It plays MP3s, but can’t create them, for instance from tracks of a CD.

Bad Microsoft! It tried to push you toward its own music format. Though you can buy plugins for the Windows Media Player that let you create MP3s, and, as it happens, Windows Media is actually a better format than MP3. Anyone who knows audio knows this. The advantage of all these formats is that they’re compressed, and take up far less disk space (and download time) than uncompressed audio. But Windows Media is twice as compressed as MP3; files of half the size sound just as good. (And, according to one study I saw on the web long ago, are arguably better, or so said a blindfold test of listeners.)

I prefer Windows Media files, and encode most of my digital music that way, on my hard drive and on my website. Windows Media is also standard on some other, much bigger sites — BuyMusic.com, for instance, which sells downloads only in Windows Media format, and Naxos Records, where you can stream most of their catalogue, but only in Windows Media.

So what’s wrong with iTunes? The answer is simple: Apple, wishing to push you toward its services and products, has outdone Microsoft. iTunes doesn’t recognize Windows Media files at all. It won’t create them, and won’t play them. It doesn’t even tell you they exist. (The Windows Media Player at least offers to explain why Windows Media is better than MP3.)

And something almost surrealistic happens when you try to import Windows Media files into the iTunes music library, which you have to do with any music file before you can play it. The open file dialogue displays the Windows Media files, and doesn’t object when you select one of them and click the “Open” button. But then nothing happens! The “file open” windows disappears, just as it would if the software were doing what you want it to, but the file doesn’t appear in the iTunes library. iTunes doesn’t explain why it doesn’t, and anyone who doesn’t understand these format wars will be absolutely baffled, especially since the help files that come with iTunes never mention Windows Media at all.

iTunes also will transfer music to only one portable digital music player — Apple’s own iPod, of course. Other software players transfer files to any player you’ve got. Oh, and the iPod is just about the only portable player that won’t play Windows Media files! Apple, supposedly the voice of freedom in the digital world, and the great alternative to Microsoft, here proves itself even more grasping and commercial than its widely hated enemy.

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