5 misconceptions about digital-only releases

If you’re shopping on iTunes or ClassicsOnline, listening on Pandora or Spotify or Naxos Music Library, you mostly don’t care where else a record is available. You’re just happy you can listen to it however you choose. It wouldn’t affect your life if the album never came out on CD at all.

I have, though, run into some strange ideas about digital-only releases, so I’d like to take this opportunity to set the record straight about five major misconceptions:

1) A digital-only release isn’t a proper release

Not true. In the US, more than half of all record sales are digital, with sales of downloads outnumbering sales of both CDs and LPs put together. It might not be what we’re used to, but this is the way most music is purchased now.

In 1992, when CD became the dominant format, nobody could sensibly argue that a CD wasn’t a proper release unless it was also available on cassette, but the argument is basically the same. To dismiss digital releases is to dismiss the reality of the modern music market.

Digital-only releases are recognised as proper releases by every major trade body including Nielsen Soundscan and The Official Charts Company. They have been eligible for the Grammy awards since 2001, and just this year a digital-only release won a major award.

2) A digital-only release is much cheaper to make

Not true. CDs and downloads have many of the same fixed costs, because the expensive parts of releasing a recording are making and marketing the album. Even after you’ve made the master, the CDs themselves account for a small part of the overall budget.

3) Nobody really invests in digital-only recordings

Not true. It’s actually easier to invest in a non-physical release, because you don’t have to gamble on the future of CD retail. We expect CDs to be around for many years, but by committing to a growing sector of the market, we can plan to recoup our investment over a longer period of time. It is true that we invest in different things. We don’t, for example, include digital-only recordings in our sales brochure, because almost all of the thousands of copies are sent to physical retailers. It would be a waste of ink and paper. Instead, we focus on online promotions. Where these are less expensive, we can do more of them.

4) If we expected an album to sell, we’d put it out on CD

Not true. The mix of physical/digital sales isn’t the same for every type of music. Operas sell very well on CD. Chamber music, large collections and contemporary music all sell very well as downloads. An album we expected to sell 96% of copies digitally (and such records do exist) could spend ten weeks at the top of the Billboard classical chart through digital sales alone and still not sell enough physical CDs to justify manufacturing. Our digital successes tend to be a bit more modest than that, but there was no shame in a CD-only release in 1992, and there’s nothing wrong with a digital-only release today.

5) It only makes sense to review CDs

Not true. Most reviews are of the music, not the packaging. Many publications have stuck with music reviews through the changes in format from 78 to LP to Cassette to CD, and this is just one more step. Downloads are more popular with classical consumers than SACD, Blu-Ray, LP or any other specialist format. CD sales continue to fall and download sales continue to grow, and digital-only releases will form a larger and larger part of the entire recorded music business. A publication that ignores these releases is at risk of becoming irrelevant to modern consumers, and that’s not good for anybody. It’s not good for artists, labels, publications, reviewers or, most importantly, the music lovers whose support is so vital to everything we do.

Liszt: Via Crucis

Anyhow, thanks for reading. It’s only fair to leave you with some music. Our latest digital-only release is Liszt’s Via Crucis performed by Alessandro Marangoni, Ars Cantica Choir and Marco Berrini. You can hear it on Naxos.comNaxos Music LibraryClassicsOnlineiTunesAmazon and EMusic. It’s a proper release in every way, and I think it’s rather lovely.

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  • Great Article! I am an indie musician and love meeting like minded folks. Music is my passion in life and it reflects in my work. I will be back here often to read your new posts!

  • Jim DeRosa says:

    I agree with every point in this article. Very well thought out. Digital music is not only an affordable way to purchase music, it is also the most convenient for many music consumers.

  • George Komiotis says:

    Another good article. This is a great site. Thanks

  • Gary Fisher says:

    I have come to this article a bit late but as a recording artist myself I sell more downloads of my music that the CD version at a ratio of about 10:1 and rising steeply over the last year. However I cant help to hark back and get misty eyed over vinyl releases you just seemed to get more for your money the artwork on the cover, the bio on the back etc alas those days are gone for good as digital downloads are the norm and piracy will flourish.

    • Andy Doe says:

      I like vinyl at home, CDs in the car and downloads when I’m out and about. There’s no perfect format, so I end buying the best records several times.

      I’m not sure if you’re saying that the availability of legal downloads is somehow correlated to online piracy. Obviously both require the Internet, but there’s some evidence that music unavailable for legal download is more likely to be pirated.