Web distributor gives 'lost' CDs a 2d life, on demand

Posted: May 27, 2007

Riccardo Muti's youthful face, circa 1985, peers from the cover of the Philadelphia Orchestra's recording of Alexander Scriabin's sprawling landscape of orchestral color known as his Symphony No. 2 - a disc now getting another chance after daring to be among the first of its kind.

In recent weeks, the disc occupied prime real estate on the home page of ArkivMusic.com, as the flagship release in a new agreement that gives the classical-music Web site the rights to discontinued items in the EMI catalog - but this time free of marketing projections or sink-or-swim sales goals.

In the coming months, 31 Muti-conducted Philadelphia Orchestra titles, as well as Wolfgang Sawallisch's entire discography with the orchestra (some 14 titles), will be available, custom-printed for those who missed them first time around.

"These were pulled off the market because they had run their course, because they had sold what they were going to sell," said Tom Evered, senior vice president and general manager of EMI Classics. "But even I was taken aback at realizing how many of these wonderful recordings had been deleted. Now they're back - and in their original program."

The timing would seem to be ragingly quixotic. Tower Records is gone, and many communities haven't been as lucky as Philadelphia to see the F.Y.E. company quickly taking its place. Besides, aren't compact discs being replaced by digital downloads? And if the recordings had run their course, why should they sell now?

The answers come in an alternative business model hatched over the last 12 years by the series of companies that eventually morphed into Arkiv, which is located in Bryn Mawr, but only virtually; the Main Line mailing address is a vestige of the company's high concentration of Philadelphia-area employees. Arkiv gains strength from its decentralized invisibility, a quality that comes with having grappled with the questionable efficiency of the traditional compact-disc retail store.

Of late, the Web site is focusing on the large amount of great music that went nearly unnoticed in the hectic 1980s-early '90s heyday of the compact disc. Interestingly, its reissue priorities are based on the frequency of play on radio stations, which keep deleted titles in their libraries.

"So many Muti/Philadelphia recordings came out during a period when the classical-music business was more on the upswing," said Eric Feidner, Arkiv's president and CEO. "Radio stations were getting service from distribution companies, better than they are today. In fact, these recordings comprise the bulk of their libraries." And it's those airplay patterns that are giving Arkiv its compass for reissues.

The Muti-conducted Scriabin symphony is theoretically in print, having been repackaged as part of a larger boxed set, though not in its original format - including the Tchaikovsky tone poem Hamlet as a bridge to Scriabin's less familiar idiom. Other returning discs are full of star names - Leif Ove Andsnes playing Schumann, Beverly Sills singing Lehar, Simon Rattle conducting Walton - priced between $14.99 and $16.99. Let there be no mystery behind their previous absence from circulation: Many major companies ruthlessly cut titles even when they sell a hair or two under 1,000 copies a year.

What makes them viable for Arkiv are new business models, most of them simplifying the classical industry in ways never previously thought possible. In years past, Tower Records paid huge rents for prime urban locations and employed procedures for stocking discs that, if nothing else, kept the U.S. Postal Service busy.

Recording labels shipped discs to distributors, who then shipped requested quantities to retail stores. Unsold discs were shipped back by the stores. Sometimes those unsold discs would be sent back to the stores as cutouts - CDs marked so they couldn't be sold at full price. Thus, high overhead dictated all sorts of decisions not necessarily favoring Scriabin orchestral music.

In contrast, Arkiv is more streamlined, physically speaking, than Amazon.com, which houses inventory in warehouses around the country. Arkiv has no warehouses. An order selected from its 87,000-title catalog is placed through the Arkiv Web site but answered with a package shipped directly from the distributor. Though Arkiv created its presence through independent labels, it has been signing substantial deals with the prestigious Universal Music, among others, prior to the EMI deal. But in contrast to situations in which EMI requires up-front licensing fees, "we pay when we sell something," said Feidner.

That's a significant reversal, particularly considering that the kind of back catalog to be sold by Arkiv was once the backbone of a major label's profits and market share that declined because collectors had replaced their LPs with CDs and just weren't buying so much. The industry is now going through another spasm with the onset of digital downloads that bypass the compact disc completely.

Or maybe not. "We believe the physical disc will have a longer life span in the classical genre," said Feidner. "We did a customer survey at the end of last year . . . and there's an overwhelming preference for the physical CD. It's sound quality and not trusting that it'll stay alive on their hard drive."

Fine. But why should anybody bother with a market that for a particular compact disc may be only 300 hard-to-find people?

Feidner sees a different set of indicators: "There's very little fraud. You can't buy 100 discs on somebody else's credit card and then get rid of them on the street. It's a profitable niche to be in. It's a highly attractive demographic." Who? Us gray-headed nerds? My, my!

In fact, Arkiv is so keen to protect its honest relationship with that demographic that it doesn't carry record-label ads on its site.

The business model also honors the waiting game of classical music. For example, in the past some people - including the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra - have wondered aloud if Scriabin was worth the time of Muti & Company; the current generation could similarly question whether Scriabin is worth the trouble of ArkivMusic. History would suggest "no" to both.

The eccentric Russian mystic (1872-1915) began composing in a Chopin-esque manner but evolved into Richard Strauss without impulse control in scores that are lingering and languorous, seemingly oblivious to any semblance of classic proportions. Muti and the Philadelphians were among the first non-Russian teams to champion Scriabin in a pioneering effort that seemed not to pay off at the time.

But many composers who didn't speak to previous generations speak to this one. The 1980s damned the now-popular Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The 1950s had far less patience with Gustav Mahler.

So Scriabin's time may yet come. And when it does, the luxurious Muti recording, with any luck, will be findable - if not at ArkivMusic, then, we must hope, somewhere.

Hear an excerpt from the Muti CD at

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/davidpatrickstearns

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