CD sales stuck in doldrums for lack of another Pavarotti

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Luciano Pavarotti and football are the perfect harmony. But, unfortunately for the record industry, which is experiencing a sharp slump in classical- music sales, the World Cup is only every four years.

By bringing "Nessun Dorma" to the terraces, unlikely buyers were dragged into the realm of classical music and sales peaked.

Recently, however, there has been a dearth of high-profile releases, which has led to plummeting sales.

As a nation which knows exactly what it wants in the compact-disc rack, the industry is having to ferret around for a release that will whet our conservative tastes in the hope of rescuing the year's sales.

Bill Holland, divisional director of Polygram Classics, said: "As a nation we do tend to be conservative and stick to what's safe. As a record company we have to identify potentially commercial records - easily accessible tunes.

"We're watching all the time for music that's used in films, TV ads and sporting events. Lately there hasn't been the big hit we need but when there's a block-buster it tends to transform the market."

The amount of classical albums sold in the last quarter sank to 2.83 million, a 20.5 per cent decline on the same period of 1996. Value sales slipped to pounds 11.7m, 22 per cent down.

Fiona Maddocks, former editor of BBC Music Magazine, said: "Unless there's a big hit like Gorecki's Symphony Number Three to prop the industry up, and pay for the more obscure things, then sales will fall. The trend is downwards."

The downturn follows a difficult period for the classical market, which revived in the 1980s when consumers bought new compact discs to replace their favourite vinyl recordings, and was buoyed in the early 1990s by the success of the best-selling crossover albums by the violinist Nigel Kennedy and the Three Tenors.

Charles Stewart-Smith, spokesman for the British Phonographic Industry, said: "The market is like a Yo-Yo and can depend on one or two recordings. And there's also the knock-on effect - when Canto Gregoriano sold well there was interest in other chant music."

In 1990 16.6 million classical albums were sold. In 1992 sales dropped to 12.3 million and last year the figure was 14.7 million. The last quarter, incorporating Christmas sales, is the best-selling chunk of the year, so the industry is keeping its fingers crossed that Kennedy's new album, and October's televising of the Gramophone Awards - the classical version of the Brits - will boost sales.