Under the surface

Deutsche Grammophon has just unveiled a new download site, where all of us can buy their classical recordings, including many that have long been out of print on CD. And all of this without DRM! (“Digital Rights Management,” which means the kind of copy-protection that up to now has beenalmost universal when we buy downloads (though the tide is starting to shift, not only at DG, but also on iTunes and at Amazon, where all downloads are DRM-free).

A good thing, obviously. But the day it was announced, I got an amazed e-mail from someone who works closely with two of DG’s big classical stars. Apparently DG didn’t tell at least these two artists in advance that this new download thing was happening. My friend was annoyed, to say the least. Where was common courtesy? Where was the thought that, just maybe, some of the artists might like to help promote their newly available downloads?

So I asked a publicist who’d e-mailed me a press release about the new site (not someone who works directly for DG). Was it true, I asked, that DG didn’t tell its artists that this was going to happen? And I got an answer. Here it is, the official — and ineffable — DG reply to my question:

Deutsche Grammophon believes its artists are pleased to learn that their label is making every effort to sell their recordings through all possible retail channels.

A mere civilian like myself couldn’t have written this. It takes someone so steeped in corporate life that they’d long since stopped expressing themselves in plain English. But certainly it confirms what I thought, and what my friend thought. DG never told its artists about its download plans. And now trusts that they’re “pleased” to learn of them!

Well, very likely they are. Though I’ll guarantee that there’s also some annoyance. But why would DG have proceeded this way? Maybe they’re just clueless. But maybe there’s some larger strategic or tactical reason for keeping the thing quiet, at least where there artists are concerned. I’ll float two theories, without any inside information that might lead me to think either of them is right. Still…maybe DG worried that some of its artists might not be pleased to see their recordings on sale without copy protection. In pop music, we’ve seen a few bands go to war against piracy, and some that for a long time wouldn’t allow downloads at all.

So maybe DG had no contractual reason not to proceed — none of their artists, or not many of them, had anything in their contracts to prohibit DRM-free downloads. But maybe DG still worried that some of the artists wouldn’t be happy, and so decided to present their stars with this as a fait accompli, to make protests more difficult. Or maybe DG’s lawyers objected. I saw this happen years ago, when the first music download was offered. This happened in the early to mid-’90s (I don’t remember the exact year); it was an Aerosmith song, if I’m remembering correctly, offered online by Geffen Records. It just about took all night to download.

I did a story on this for Entertainment Weekly, where I was working at the time, and I found out that the record company’s lawyers were all opposed to the plan. They thought it would lead to — well, more or less what it did lead to, though if record companies had taken the lead, and offered legal downloads before illegal ones spread, maybe the outcome would have been different. Maybe the lawyers helped create the outcome they’d feared.

So maybe — and again, I’m just theorizing — DG’s lawyers, or some of them, didn’t like this plan. Maybe it was controversial inside the company. So maybe, in one of those deals that people sometimes strike to keep all sides happy (even if the result doesn’t make complete sense), they all agreed to offer the downloads, but not to publicize it very much in advance. Create the download site, but don’t make much fuss over it. In this scenario, maybe the artists weren’t told, because if they had been, information might have leaked.

This is only speculation. But DG’s blunt discourtesy — in not telling the artists what was going on — does make me wonder if there might not have been some reason for it.

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  1. says

    More likely, there is some obsure clause in the contracts these artists signed which makes all this perfeclty legal.

    Plus, most of the artists are probably dead: Karajan, Rostropovich, Fournier, Kleiber, etc..

  2. says

    You may be right about the corporate-political origins of this “oversight”. But maybe it is simply part of record company DNA not to take the opinions of their artists into account when making such decisions.

    I don’t want to single out DG – they have done a lot for classical music – but this is clearly a case where a little common sense would have gone a long way.

  3. Marcel says

    Dear Mr. Sandow,

    Thanks for your article about the DG downloads.

    On top of this, they sell these downloads at the exchange rate 1 USD = 1 EUR. All those who will be charged in EUR will pay approx. 40% to 45% more than countries for which DG invoices in USD. And the customer has no choice of the currency.

    Not only the artists, customers too will be very “pleased”.

    Best regards,


  4. says

    Hmm, let’s see, I can either pay for a lossy MP3 download, which would require a credit card and site registration, or I can just download a lossless file from any of a dozen file-sharing networks with active classical communities without having to pay or give personal details.

    I like having a CD collection, so I buy CDs. However, I spent much of the year in parts of the world where a wide range of CDs simply aren’t available. People there are already used to getting everything they want for free on the Internet. Labels are going to have to massively change their business model to survive. If DG thinks that it is saving itself from doom by this half-measure, it’s in for a rude awakening.

  5. says

    Mr. Culver, perhaps you can explain why downloading a lossless file from a file-sharing network isn’t stealing. My naive compunctions about taking others’ property are what lead me to pay for MP3 downloads or buy CDs.