from cross to crossover: welcome to the new rock'n'roll

Too pop to be classical, too posh to be pop: that's why choirboys are getting a chart of their own. By Emma Cook
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Forget seasonal pop chart fever - this Christmas the really hot battle for musical supremacy is being fought on a different pitch. Will the children-of-Dunblane song get to Number One,now that the Spice Girls have considerately delayed their own release? The really shrewd music marketing men couldn't care less. They're backing a different set of winners - winners with the essential allure of youth, fine singing voices and highly marketable images. They're backing choirboys.

Choirboys may not make subversive pop stars, but mothers and grannies like them - and so do children. Pitched between classical and popular, they've got something for all the family. Two weeks ago, 13-year-old Anthony Way released his latest album, The Choirboy's Christmas. The combined sales of his last two records have reached half a million - a total that would impress even a Spice Girl. It may not be terribly rock'n'roll, yet this burgeoning end of the market has adopted exactly the same tools of the trade: hype, marketing and more hype.

For evidence of this look no further than Anthony's publicist, Richard Beck - he works for Laister Dickson, a PR company which also represents Tina Turner, Janet Jackson and The Rolling Stones. Like all good rock PRs, Beck has helped to nurture a "major management structure" around the young performer - this week sees the start of Anthony's television advertising campaign; he's also appearing on GMTV and The National Lottery.

But choirboy singing is just a fraction of this growth market that churns out middle-brow, quasi-classical CDs quicker than Take That hits. At Sony Classical they've even launched a separate label catering for the cod- spiritual element - Arc of Light - releasing records such as Westminster Abbey's Adeste Fideles! and Millennium Of Music. Steve Finnigan, head of Sony Classical, enthuses: "In a marketing context we got the Millennium word in four years ahead, which we were pleased about. And we did a great amount of business - about 12,000 sales. There's a demand for spiritual, relaxing music. It's calming, ethereal and very popular." Robert Sandall, director of media affairs at Virgin, is more frank about the genre: "It's ungroovy easy listening that everyone hates but the people love. It's stuff that sells well - in six-figure sums."

It's just finding the right place to sell it that's been a problem. As the boundaries between pop and classical blur, chart purists have refused certain records entry. Rejects from the highbrow league have included the opera singer Lesley Garrett's Soprano in Red, classical guitarist John Williams's John Williams Plays the Movies and Marianne Faithfull singing Kurt Weill. Anthony Way's solo album The Choirboy was also excluded because it used syncopated rhythms and electronic instruments - much too rock'n'roll. But this is all set to change now that the chart compilers CIN are allowing the glut of middlebrow material to compete in a new classical crossover chart due to start in January.

Which is good news for the promoters - one of Finnigan's artists is John Williams. "The classical charts threw his movie-scores album out but it would've reached Number One for five weeks, whereas it only got to Number 55 in the pop charts. It's about marketing and I need a success to shout about, so a Number One in a small specialist chart would be a fantastic opportunity to take artists to a bigger audience."

Fiona Maddocks, editor of BBC Music Magazine, explains: "At the moment it's a bit like putting a book by Delia Smith in the literary fiction category. In terms of sales, the specialised releases get squashed by the sheer weight of popular CDs."

In Anthony's case, the sheer weight of his popularity was linked to an acting role in Joanna Trollope's BBC adaptation The Choir last year. Plucked from St Paul's Cathedral Choir, he sang and starred as - yup - the star boy in the choir. He then sang on the soundtrack of The Choir. Funnily enough, in the storyline Way's character releases a record to save a cathedral. Coincidence or not, it was the mixture of fact and fiction that helped to secure the album a Number Three spot in the pop charts, squeezing out Michael Jackson. It was also the fastest-selling classical release since The Three Tenors.

For a teenager who doesn't appear to mind spending an inordinate amount of time in a cassock - or the media limelight for that matter - Anthony seems pretty well-balanced. "The publicity seemed a lot when I first started but it's second nature to me now," he says. "I'd like to carry on with my singing but it depends on how my voice turns out. I do often get compared to Aled Jones - but I actually sold half a million records and he didn't."

"He's part of an intricate set-up which wasn't around in Aled's day," says Beck. "Decca is spending an initial advertising budget up to Christmas of pounds 300,000, which beats Simply Red." Anthony's mother has set up a fan club, replying to all letters because her son's schedule is so busy. "I think everyone's protective of him," she says. "We all make sure he only does what he wants to do."

The only real difference between a choir singer's PR and and that of a rock artist is that, as Beck says: "You have to ask the headmaster's permission if it's OK for him to appear on Des O'Connor." One would hope there's a marginal variation in audience as well. "Forty to 50 per cent of his fan club are girls," says Beck. "They're quite young - it's very much a Take That appeal." Difficult to believe, considering choirboy charm is one that epitomises school discipline and family values - hardly the stuff of teenage frenzy. Yet Anthony's image-makers are trying hard to add a groovy dimension; his press blurb boasts that former choirboys include Keith Richards, John Lennon and David Bowie, while the publicity shots show the young chorister wearing rollerblades and trying desperately to look like something out of Boyzone. He also claims to enjoy playing the electric guitar. But his true crossover appeal will never stray too far from nostalgia. As Fiona Maddocks says: 'It's the last remaining vestige of the Christmas tradition. It's a very pure image of something that people had in their childhoods and haven't replaced since." It's also something that encapsulates British eccentricities; the idea of a vestal choirboy is as humorous as it is sacred - Dick Emery meets Songs of Praise.

And it fuels the fantasy that male adolescents such as Anthony Way still enjoy wholesome, self-improving pursuits more than, say, emulating the loutish habits of less savoury teenage idols such as Liam Gallagher. As Edward Higginbottom, director of music at New College, Oxford, says: "These boys do a lot of singing in the week - about two hours a day. It's a good discipline - they'd only be watching TV otherwise. There's nothing going to waste in their careers."

Certainly music companies appear to agree as they gear up for the sales bonanza that should characterise the crossover chart. Yet it would be nice to think that all the petty snobberies surrounding definitions of popular and classic music will be cast aside once it's up and running. As if it were a Joanna Trollope drama, one expects it to be a medium where choirboys and middle-aged women can share the limelight side by side.

But the first signs of prima-donna behaviour were evident last week when The Three Tenors - Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras - accused Bruce Forsyth, Jimmy Tarbuck and Kenny Lynch of "abusing and vulgarising" their reputations.

The trio, calling themselves The Three Fivers, have recorded a version of "Winter Wonderland" as a "cheeky tribute" to the opera singers. The tenors were not amused and are now taking legal steps to stop the comedians. Musical purists would argue that as populist/classical performers they shouldn't get so sniffy. The problem is that few artists would really like to define themselves as a middle-of-the-road crossover act. Finnigan says: "The Three Tenors wouldn't see themselves like that. They think they just happened to bring opera to a wider audience."

Still, it's unlikely that Anthony Way,or his "management structure", will indulge in petty squabbles, as long as his dulcet tones are shifting half a million the word "crossover" can only be music to their ears.