Classical music sales slump to all-time low

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The Independent Online

Sales of classical music have slumped to their lowest point ever, according to an alarming new snapshot of the record industry. The figures have prompted the organisers of Britain's most prestigious classical awards to reinvent them as a mixture of Pop Idol and the Mercury Music Prize.

More than a decade after the heyday of the Three Tenors, the new survey, compiled by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), appears to prove that the public's brief 1990s flirtation with orchestral music is over. It found that classical CDs accounted for barely one in 20 of all the albums sold in the UK last year - compared to a high of one in 10 in 1990.

The survey suggests that glamorous stars such as Charlotte Church, Vanessa Mae and Bond, the stiletto-wearing string quartet who were banned from the classical charts for sounding "too poppy", have had little or no impact on overall classical sales. Between 2001 and 2002 alone - the year which saw a boom in such "crossover" acts - the number of classical albums sold fell from 15.8 million to 13 million.

The BPI figures also expose the mistaken belief that scantily clad young violinists and sopranos help to attract a more youthful audience. Over the past two years the proportion of classical albums bought by the under-40s has actually dropped, from 15 per cent to 14 per cent.

The slow death of classical music as a popular art form is being blamed on a variety of factors - not least the oft-criticised inadequacy of music teaching in schools.

So concerned are the organisers of the Gramophone Awards that they are about to reinvent themselves as classical music's answer to the Mercury Prize - the connoisseur's version of the Brits.

The architect of the changes, James Jolly, editor of Gramophone magazine, is among those keen to dismiss the idea that acts like Bond boost the demand for classical music among young people.

"I don't think if you are attracted to Bond you are ever going to buy a disc of a string quartet playing Shostakovich," he said. "It's a nice idea having a quartet doing funky arrangements, but I just wish they would get in a cutting-edge producer to do something bold. If you look at the people who buy Bond it's not actually the young at all, but 30- and 40-year-olds. As for Charlotte Church, she tends to be bought by grannies."

For many people, the rationalisation of the awards is long overdue.

Presented each October, they have traditionally been spread across 13 categories, creating widespread confusion over which accolades are the most significant. In future, the focus will be on two main prizes: a Mercury-style "record of the year" and "artist of the year", which will be chosen by the public in a Pop Idol-type vote.

In terms of marquee name appeal, however, the latest artist of the year shortlist is unlikely to send teenagers scurrying for their mobile phones to cast their votes. Aside from the dashing young tenor Ian Bostridge and renowned "Bach pianist" Angela Hewitt, the most glamorous contestant is Marin Alsop, who recently became the UK's first woman symphony conductor.

Unlike in past years, the judges for this year's awards include several well-known personalities, among them the actor Simon Callow, ITN newsreader John Suchet and James Naughtie, presenter of Radio 4's Today programme. Those handing out gongs on the night itself will include comic actor Richard Wilson.

Explaining the changes, Mr Jolly said: "It's a tough time for the classical music industry, and anything that can stimulate interest in it is important.

"The idea of releasing the record of the year shortlist a few weeks before the awards ceremony is meant to help us generate greater public debate about the awards than there's been in the past. It would be nice to get people talking about it each year like they do the Booker."

The "crossover" stars themselves appear to be divided over whether classical music has much of a future. Last night, Russell Watson, the steel worker-turned-"people's tenor", said: "Any downturn in classical sales is a reflection of music sales as a whole. It is talent and great music that the public always appreciate, not simple gimmicks."

However, Mel Bush, manager of Bond and the man credited with "discovering" violinist Vanessa Mae, said: "Of course I would hope that they would help persuade more people to buy classical music generally.

"With Vanessa Mae, young people did go out and buy classical albums, but they bought her classical albums. Whether they went out and bought classical albums by other people I don't know.

"It's got to the point when you have to ask the question of classical music: 'has it reached its sell-by date?'"