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Bum Notes – or Dude, Where’s My Booklet?
by Dan Morgan

As a music buyer ‘of a certain age’ I have fond memories of LP sleeve notes, booklets and libretti; indeed, they were an essential part of the record collecting experience. That all changed with the advent of CDs in 1983, when the reduced form factor made sleeve notes impractical and the type size of some booklets and libretti made them a challenge to read. That’s if they were present at all. Peruse the daily listings on MusicWeb International and you’ll see that all too many labels seem to treat documentation as an afterthought; that affects full-price discs as well as bargain ones.

Alas, that malaise has now spread to downloads, the high-res versions of which often retail for significantly more that the equivalent CDs. Admittedly only a handful of the downloads I reviewed in 2014 were sold sans booklet, but a trawl of eclassical, Qobuz, HDtracks and iTunes shows just how many downloads are being sold without supporting documentation. That may be acceptable to those who buy cheap, lossy files from the likes of Amazon, emusic, Sainsburysentertainment and 7digital, but it’s a grievous omission when it comes to expensive, high-res downloads.

I can point to several reviews of late where I’ve taken issue with labels for not including pdf booklets with their downloads. In two cases I complained on Twitter and the labels in question promptly emailed me the missing notes. At first one of them tried to sidestep the issue by offering me the CD instead. At the time of writing – January 2015 – I was reviewing the download of familiar repertoire presented in a new and thought-provoking way. A grumble on Twitter elicited no response, so I was forced to rely on a friend’s scanned copy of the CD booklet. Unforgivable, really.

Do booklets really matter, I hear you cry? Yes they do; apart from the invaluable information contained in the best examples – especially when it comes to new or unfamiliar repertoire – they are accepted as an integral part of the physical package and should be included with the download as well. Puzzled as to why the download community should be discriminated against in this way I decided to investigate further. I discovered a confused state of affairs, with some parties muttering darkly about costs, aiding piracy (!) or simply accusing others of failing to provide the documentation at point of sale.

We can dispense with the piracy issue easily enough, for many of the major labels have long offered pdf booklets on their websites without ill-effect. Chief among these are BIS (eclassical), Chandos (TheClassicalShop) and Hyperion, all of whom allow one to download their booklets without even having to purchase the associated downloads. Other labels – whether sold from their own websites or on others – consistently offer liner-notes as part of the purchased download. I’ve not had any issues with the likes of Harmonia Mundi, Dacapo, LSO Live, Zig-Zag Territoires or CSO Resound for example, but then these are quality labels committed to a comprehensive, high-value package.

Now for the cost issue. How expensive can it be to provide downloadable notes, given that they already exist for the equivalent discs? Besides, many of these downloads aren’t exactly cheap, so it really is incumbent on those serial offenders – you know who you are – to fix this problem, pronto. Clearly these booklets do exist – witness those two labels who sent them to me within minutes of my tweets. So, I’d suggest this is just another distraction, and one that can be dismissed without further ado.

Now this is where it gets interesting. Qobuz and eclassical have both confirmed that getting digital booklets is very difficult indeed. If that is so, then the labels themselves must be to blame. Oh no, one of them confided to me in a direct mail, it’s the distributor’s fault. Or, they hinted conspiratorially, the download sites are deliberately withholding them. Really? I find it very hard to imagine either of those scenarios; the words buck and pass come to mind here.

We are told that sales of physical discs are declining and that many listeners are turning to CD-quality streaming services – such as that offered by Qobuz – and the better download sites instead. If that is so and labels are really committed to downloads as an additional revenue stream they really need to offer buyers a much better deal. That includes sensible pricing – it’s all to easy for reviewers to lose sight of such considerations – but that’s a debate for another day.

I’ve touched on the informational/educational aspect of well-written notes, but for reviewers – who often evaluate downloads in advance of their release on CD/SACD – they’re an indispensable part of the reviewing process. Quite apart from the musical commentary, lyrics/libretti and useful artist bios there are details about recording venues, instruments deployed and other details that help to flesh out a good, well-informed review. Having to search for them online is both irksome and time-consuming; indeed, in one case I spent more time on research and cross-checking content than I did on the review itself.

Plainly that’s a waste of time and it does make one less well disposed towards the recording in question; indeed, a colleague has even decided not to award an otherwise outstanding release with the title Recording of the Month because of missing or incomplete documentation. Some may find that a bit excessive, but then our collective patience is wearing thin. That’s not helped by the fact that several labels I’ve chastised in the past – and who subsequently promised to rectify the problem – have done precisely nothing.

Fine, if that’s their attitude then my colleagues and I will continue to name and shame the worst offenders until their downloads – like the discs – are supplied with booklets. That one has to revert to the threat of bad publicity is very dispiriting indeed; let’s hope the new year sees a change of heart, so that we can get back to what matters most – the music.

Dan Morgan