Classical download store launches
DRM-free tracks mean music can be transferred to other audio devices
Classical music lovers in the UK will now be able to download their favourite works from the web, thanks to a new resource launched today.
Passionato is providing the world's biggest collection of high-quality classical downloads, first in the UK and later worldwide.
The company says more than 18,000 recordings are available.
Many fans of classical music have previously shunned MP3 downloads because of disappointing quality.
Passionato offers its downloads - single tracks, works or albums - at high-quality 320kbps MP3 or lossless FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec).
All are free from Digital Rights Management (DRM) which means they can be transferred to any computer or portable music players including the iPod and be burnt to a CD.
The website provides access to catalogues from major classical labels as well as key independent labels and there are plans to sign up more labels and add new releases on a weekly basis.
Passionato's founder is James Glicker, a veteran of the music industry and a former president of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
He told the BBC that although it did its early research in the US, it chose to launch in the UK for two reasons.
Founder James Glicker hopes to boost the classical music industry
"First, the UK and Europe have an incredibly vibrant classical music scene in terms of concert attendance, record labels and journalism - though of course the US is the biggest single country in terms of actual classical music sales," he said.
"Second, the UK has several innovative entities that sponsor creative projects, including the Creative Capital Fund, which invested in Passionato. So another reason for setting up Passionato in the UK is to take advantage of the financial support that was being offered to us."
He described classical music aficionados - of which he is one - as "a fastidious lot" who had been slow to switch to digital because of the relatively poor quality of compressed files.
"Online music stores have typically offered MP3s at 128kbps, ie very compressed files, which is fine for pop music but it's not exactly high-fidelity," he said.
"There are a handful of online stores currently offering small catalogues of classical music at 320kbps. This is high quality audio and our research tells us people can't readily distinguish between 320kbps MP3s and CD quality wavs. We are offering 320kpbs and also lossless FLAC."
Passionato will face competition from established online classical music stores such as eclassical as well as from large download stores such as iTunes which have some classical works in their catalogues.
Mr Glicker said he hoped Passionato would boost the classical music industry.
"This is a major motivation for us," he said.
"It's ironic that while classical music concert attendance is on the rise, labels are reducing their recordings and physical retailers are shutting down like there is no tomorrow.
"So the future of classical music distribution is online. The only thing that has stopped this inevitable shift from happening to date has been audio quality, plus the DRM issue."
The BPI, the UK's recorded music industry association, issued a statement welcoming the launch.
"Digital distribution already offers great choice as to how music fans can access and enjoy music online, and its potential is even greater. We expect the new Passionato service will greatly enhance the digital music offering for classical music aficionados and we warmly welcome innovation of this type in music retail."
Visitors to the Passionato online store can listen to 60-second samples before deciding whether to buy a track. A free music player and organiser is also available for download.
As part of the launch, anyone registering at passionato.com can claim 10 free pre-selected tracks including a 30-minute work.