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Ever try to catch the title of a piece of music you enjoy hearing on WKSU, and miss it entirely? That’s why WKSU publishes its music lists on this website, and has for many years. We’re also available via phone or email to provide real human help.

Yet some of our listeners still say they have trouble finding the CDs we play.

The problem is that what we play isn’t always readily available. We’ve been collecting CDs at WKSU since the CD was introduced in 1984, and we now have somewhere between 13,000 and 15,000 in the library. I’d guess that a good half to three-quarters of them are out of print. But there’s fine music on those CDs, so we’re not about to stop playing them!

Some of these orphan recordings have been reissued under new catalog numbers, but there’s no published cross-reference which links old CD catalog numbers with new ones. Other recordings have simply vanished from the catalog altogether, sometimes lost forever but for the efforts of used and cutout recording dealers.

Even when we’re able to identify the CD and find a current manufacturer, that may not help if the listener can’t find a place to buy it. Mall CD shops seldom stock anything beyond the most popular recordings of the most basic repertoire — if indeed they have any classical music. Increasingly, I’ve steered listeners seeking CDs toward the Internet retailers, which are often better able to special-order classical CDs than local stores.

One of the handful I consistently recommend is Arkivmusic.

Understand, they’re far from perfect.

  • Their website is fairly easy to comprehend, but it’s missing something I consider absolutely basic — a search function. You have to locate everything in a tedious drilldown.
  • Unlike most online vendors, they seldom let you listen before buying. Only recently have Arkivmusic finally started providing sample audio clips, and they still don’t have them for every track.
  • Their prices are far from the lowest.

But a couple of positives have kept Arkivmusic in the running, at least for me.

For one thing, it’s actually run by classical people. With some of the large online CD vendors, classical music seems almost an afterthought — even though classical CD sales remain surprisingly strong while pop CD sales are in a steep decline. One other major Internet vendor’s classical search barely works, for example.

I also don’t know of another major vendor which actually brings back out of print classical recordings. A couple years ago, Arkivmusic began licensing major-label recordings that had been deleted from the catalog. They offer them on CD-Rs — in plain English, burned CDs. The company produces them on demand, meaning that when you order one, they make one for you and mail it. The artwork varies from nothing more than a card with the movement titles to, in some cases, duplicates of the originals. They now reissue about 100 late and lamented CDs per week, and have a total of over 5,000 such rescued titles listed on their website.

Eric and Jon Feidner founded Arkivmusic in 2002, entirely with private financing. This allowed them to remain independent and follow their own musical instincts. But pop music distribution is increasingly handled through Internet downloads, and the Feidners expect classical music to eventually go that way too. How could they finance the costs of developing such a system?

This week, the answer arrived. Arkivmusic has been bought out. Not by Amazon, though you might have expected that; but by Steinway and Sons, the piano manufacturer. Steinway made an inital US$3 million payment, and will invest a further US$1.5 million over the next 3 years.

The radical difference in their businesses — Steinway and Arkivmusic pretty much intersect only on the words "classical music" — means it’s unlikely that there will be any merging of operations. However, perhaps we’ll soon see a growing catalog of reissued piano recordings on the Arkivmusic website — featuring Steinway artists, of course. We’ll have to see whether that new priority will slow down their reissues of recordings by the likes of Antal Dorati and Les Arts Florissants.

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