Jonathan Takiff: Burn-on-demand heats up

ArkivMusic.com sells a Phila-delphia Orchestra recording.
ArkivMusic.com sells a Phila-delphia Orchestra recording.
Posted: November 24, 2010

THE GIZMO: Entertainment-on-demand goes hard copy.

REINVENTING THE WHEEL: Clearly we're moving to an "on demand" model for video and music - content available as you wish on pay TV and the Internet. Retailers keep shrinking their CD and DVD departments.

But what about us library builders who don't trust the durability of "download only" albums and movies? Ironically, hope's a brewing in burn-on-demand music discs and movies created to order from an online store.

At present, makers are focused mostly on older and less known titles. But some predict burn-to-order will someday be the primary way we acquire hard copies of almost everything.

MUSIC TO YOUR EARS: Devotees of classical music are already benefiting, able to order recordings "that maybe only 100 people [in the entire country] might want to purchase in a given year," said Eric Feidner, CEO of music-on-demand producer and retailer ArkivMusic.com. Based in Bryn Mawr with satellite offices and warehouses around the country, the company has amassed a staggering 10,000 custom-pressable titles. Included are major chunks of the Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, Philips, EMI, Virgin, RCA and Columbia catalogs that those high-overhead labels can no longer afford to press, warehouse, market, distribute "and then eventually take back when they don't sell," said Feidner.

"It costs us more to a make an individual disc - say $4 instead of $1 - but for us, that's the end of the expense, not the beginning." And the $15 price ArkivMusic charges per title isn't out of line.

Among the treasures we requested were a gorgeous pairing of Dvorak Symphonies performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, previously available only in Japan, plus an intriguing 1976 rethink of "The Threepenny Opera" starring Raul Julia.

The latter is one of several "lost" showtune albums ArkivMusic is producing at the behest of Sony's Masterworks Broadway division. Arkiv's catalog also features an additional 80,000 still-in-print classical CD and DVDs sourced mostly from European companies. The company is often solicited to custom press other kinds of music, but so far it's resisting.

NOT IN THEATERS: On the film side, the pioneering Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group and a newly onboard Sony Pictures Home Entertainment have online sites (www.WarnerArchive.com; www.Columbia-Classics.com) offering relatively obscure movie and TV-show discs made "on request" and usually priced at $20.

Sony standouts for me? The French New Wave-inspired "Mickey One" marking the first pairing of actor Warren Beatty and producer-director Arthur Penn; an entertaining Sherlock Holmes-meets-Jack the Ripper-themed "A Study in Terror," and the dark, adulterous tale of "The Pumpkin Eater," which starred Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch and James Mason.

Boasting the biggest library in Hollywood and a caring curator in Senior Vice President George Feltenstein, WarnerArchive's nearly 900 on-demand selections range from the sublime to the ridiculous and even controversial.

My heart was stolen by a royal remastering of Grace Kelly's final film, "The Swan," by "Susan Slept Here," a surprisingly sharp screwball comedy, and by an amazing treasure trove for music buffs, the six-disc "Warner Bros. Big Band, Jazz & Swing Short Subject Collection."

But be forewarned. Some of those Vitaphone shorts harken back to the 1920s, and the stereotyping of black entertainers can be painful (though instructive) to behold.

Also dipping toes into the water are 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's "MGM Limited Edition Collection," Universal's "Vault Series" plus the likes of Cartoon Network and MTV - the latter with custom-burned (in the tanning salon?) editions of "Jersey Shore."

These goods (or bads) are being sold through websites like MoviesUnlimited.com and Amazon.com with fulfillment by Chicago-based manufacturer Allied Vaughn (also used by Warner Bros. and Sony) and CreateSpace.

The latter is an Amazon operation that also offers on-demand DVD, CD and book publishing for individual creators. So yeah, literally anyone can jump into this scene.

INSPECTING THE GOODS: You can hardly tell the difference between today's on-demand-made and "store bought" CD-R music discs and DVD-R movies. Picture and sound quality are quite good, with the movies much improved over the VHS-era letterboxed versions still playing on some cable channels.

But these DVDs are almost totally lacking in "extras."

ArkivMusic discs pack liner notes. The opera packages even contain the full libretto, likewise custom printed one at a time!

While I had no concerns, playback of CD-Rs is "occasionally problematic in older machines," said Feidner. The DVD-Rs are stipulated to be compatible with "conventional DVD players" and "will last at least 100 years," vowed Feltenstein.

E-mail Jonathan Takiff at takiffj@phillynews.com.

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