www.ethanwiner.com - since 1997

Buying Classical Music on the Internet

By Ethan Winer

This article first appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of Strings magazine.


The Internet is a terrific resource for general and music-specific research, participating in news groups, and staying in touch with far-away friends via email. But for me - and for thousands of others who don't live near a major city - it is also the best place to find and buy classical CDs and sheet music. Many online music stores specialize in popular music and offer only a token selection of classical CDs - just like regular record stores. But many others are committed to the classics, and those are the ones I have included in this review.

One of the most important feature of online stores, assuming they carry the products you want, is ease in finding what you are looking for. While price is important, all of the stores offer discounts; the cost of a given CD rarely varies by more than a dollar or two among stores. It is the searching capability that distinguishes one online store from another, and for me that is the most important criteria when shopping for music online. In my comparison that follows, I rate the stores on three criteria: 1) Selection (all have the latest Yo-Yo Ma release, but how many different recordings do they have of the Kodaly duo for violin and cello?); 2) Ease of searching; and 3) Price.

Most stores offer a separate Classical area, so you won't waste time browsing the huge number of pop music releases. Most also let you search by any combination of composer, performer, conductor, or work title. The better stores also provide cross-links, so when a composer search returns a CD performed by, say, Heifetz, you can click on Heifetz and find all of the other CDs by him that they offer. A few stores also provide RealAudio clips for some tracks on the CDs they sell, letting you hear the first 10-20 seconds of a piece to be sure it's what you expect.

For the CD Selection ratings, I searched for both the Brahms Cello Sonata in Em Opus 38 and the Kodaly duo for cello and violin Opus 7, and noted how many separate recordings were available. Searching is rated on a 1 to 5 basis, with 5 being the best. Just because a store has no match for the Brahms sonata doesn't necessarily mean they don't carry it; it could be a shortcoming in the effectiveness of the search capability. For instance, CDNow's searching is all but useless: When I specified Brahms for the composer and Op 38 for the work, CDNow returned 44 pages of CD listings - everything available by Brahms. Massmusic and Musiconsale were even worse; the only way to find a recording by composer was to scroll through hundreds of pages of listings! But at least Musiconsale lets you jump directly to the "K" names or "B" names lists. I gave up trying to find anything at both of these stores. The Price shown is for the Schwann version of the Kodaly duo, catalog #317272.

Although there are dozens of online sheet music stores, I found only three that carry a useable range of classical titles. Further, these shops are generally not up to the quality level (both for searching and content) of the CD stores. But two of them - Sharmusic and Sheetmusicplus - stand out. The Selection and Price Range for these stores is for the Brahms Opus 38, since there were generally more editions of this work than the Kodaly duo.

Contrary to scare stories you may have heard, there is little reason to fear giving your credit card number over the Internet. Most online stores offer "secure transactions," where the credit card information is encrypted before being sent from your computer to theirs. But even without that feature, it is no more dangerous than giving your card number over the phone to order from, say, L.L. Bean. Indeed, you are no more likely to have your credit card number stolen on the Internet than by a clerk in a gas station or department store. Further, the agreement you have with your bank should protect you against any fraudulent charges.

Finally, finding online music shops can be like shooting at a moving target. New stores appear almost daily, and the best way to stay current is to use the various Internet search engines. Two of my favorites are www.google.com and www.metacrawler.com. Both of these (free) web services let you enter one or more key words, such as "record stores" or "sheet music" or "violin," and they return a list of web sites that contain those words or cater to those topics.

THE CAST OF PLAYERS

Online CD Stores:

Store

Selection: Kodaly, Brahms

Searching

Price

amazon.com

9, 2

*****

$14.99

cdconnection.com

11, 0

****

$13.87

cdnow.com

9, ??

**

$15.99

cduniverse.com

9, 0

****

$13.57

hbdirect.com

19, 0

****

$16.60

massmusic.com

??, ??

(0)

??

musiconsale.com

??, ??

(0)

??

towerrecords.com

9, 15

*****

$12.99

 

Online Sheet Music Stores:

Store

Selection: Brahms

Searching

Price Range

sharmusic.com

5

*****

$9.50 - $15.95

sheet-music.com

1

**

$9.95

sheetmusicplus.com

5

****

$9.00 - $31.00


Entire contents of this web site Copyright 1997- by Ethan Winer. All rights reserved.