Classical Music Awards: Who cares, wins: marketing music in the Nineties: Stephen Johnson examines recent developments in the record industry

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THE RECORD Industry; an image goes with the words. For many it is powerful, unimaginably wealthy and exploitative.

When, during the Eighties, the 'classical' side of its activities began to look less like a loss-making prestige exercise and more like a lucrative business in its own right (especially in the wake of Pavarotti's World Cup Puccini hit), so the savour of exploitation became more pronounced: reclining leggy blondes caressing cellos, svelte young male violinists in crotch- hugging denims, and of course Nige - self-made image, or a Frankensteinian creation of his label, EMI?

The boom of the Eighties is now long gone. For a while there were suggestions that the classical side might be recession-proof - that the kind of buyer it appealed to belonged to an economically secure social group and 'comfort buying' was an important factor. But although shelves continue to groan under the weight of new releases, this may be illusory. As James Jolly, editor of Gramophone magazine, put it, the record industry is rather like an ocean liner - it takes ages to stop. Discs that are appearing now have often been recorded 18 months or two years ago.

Those who have regular dealings with big labels have found that numbers of knowledgeable, relatively candid employees are in decline. Instead, certain companies have been bringing in people they consider proven sellers, sharp executives well-versed in marketing theory and practice - as though 'The Market' were a set of forces and principles that held good whatever the product. It is said that one recent classical label acquisition was chosen for his impressive achievements in fish fingers.

But such companies represent only a small part of the total classical record scene. Since the arrival of compact disc the number of small labels has mushroomed and, astonishingly, seems still to be growing. Interest in rare and neglected repertoire has spread, and the huge rise in popularity of old recordings (another unforeseen consequence of the CD revolution) has created a valuable source of income. The tiny label Continuum had big success with its Gramophone Award-winning remastering of a classic 1936 recording of Berg's Violin Concerto. Another small company, Pearl, has tapped a rich vein with its Covent Garden on Record series - longdead Divas seem to hold a growing fascination for our times, and some of these recordings date from as far back as 1871.

Companies offering only new recordings seem perfectly able to survive without what used to be considered the unavoidable Beethoven, Brahms or Mahler symphony cycles. Olympia sails on with an output of Russian/former Soviet music - not just the increasingly popular Shostakovich but also virtual unknowns (or once virtual unknowns) like Myaskovsky, Karetnikov and Kanchelli. Central to the Chandos catalogue are cycles of works by the scarcely better known Bax, Martinu, Parry and, in progress, William Alwyn. At the heart of Hyperion's activities is the complete church music of Purcell and the symphonies and quartets of Robert Simpson. Any one of these ventures might have been considered economic suicide not long ago.

Nor is this phenomenon limited to Britain. The German label Capriccio has explored fascinating operatic byways in collaboration with radio stations. Its compatriot ECM's latest releases typically include Stockhausen, Meredith Monk, the Estonian Veljo Tormis and Shostakovich played by the jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett. Most striking of all, the Hong-Kong based company Marco Polo has marched boldly into regions that many thought impenetrable. Their latest project is a set of all 32 symphonies by the archetypal 'neglected composer', Haveral Brian, and so far it seems to have been paying its way. Part of the secret is the use of musical cheap labour - orchestras and soloists from the former Eastern bloc - the other reason is director Klaus Haymann's policy of letting buyers tell him what they want: 'If I get enough letters, I record it.'

Even big names can be adventurous. After cleaning up from their shrewd management of the Pavarotti phenomenon (who, incidentally, was never marketed as anything other than an oldfashioned Italian operatic tenor), Decca - one of the companies in the huge Polygram bracket - continues to put money into projects like its admired Oiseau-lyre early/baroque music label, a revival of the old Argo contemporary music label, and a new series to include expensive operatic rarities like Franz Schrecker's once-acclaimed Der ferne Klang and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's vast Das Wunder der Heliane.

What of the future? Some companies seem to be working on the principle that as soon as this unpleasant little slump is over, it will be quickly back to the days of the post-World Cup boom - a view which few non-partisan economists seem to share. But as their executives huddle together to discuss strategies for the nineties, perhaps they should consider another possibility - that, as the defeated George Bush put it, there is no substitute for 'the vision thing'. Successes happen because someone had an intuition, a 'vision', and that someone can only be the kind of person who knows music - someone like Hyperion's Ted Perry, Chandos's Brian Couzens, or Olympia's Francis Wilson. Prediction is as risky a business as repertoire planning, but it could be that the lesson of the last two decades of the twentieth century will turn out to be something like, 'Who cares, wins'.