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How Beethoven got stuck on magazines

Classical music enthusiasts can choose from a dozen titles all fiercely competing for readers. David Lister reports
Classical music has fewer followers than rock music, but they have voracious appetites for information.

There are at least a dozen magazines specialising in classical music, ranging from the 150-year-old Musical Times (a typical lead feature "delves into a fundamental paradox at the heart of Charles Ives' musical style") to the Strad (specialising in strings) and the Singer (specialising in, well, singers).

The market has never been more competitive. Highly specialised journals such as Early Music (circulation 10,000) compete with well-known trade and established connoisseur journals such as Classical Music (9,500), Opera Now (20,000) and Gramophone, the Wisden of classical music publications (37,400).

The CD boom and popularity of Classic FM sent fans out to start collections on the new format and, more significantly, encouraged a whole new audience in need of guidance for collecting, going to concerts and learning about music generally.

Three magazines have responded to the challenge, all with the now statutory free CD attached to the cover: Classic CD (35,550), CD Review (30,000) and the newest and remarkably successful entrant - BBC Music Magazine.

The magazine was launched in September 1992 under the arm of BBC World Wide Publishing, although the BBC does not interfere editorially. It immediately became the best-selling classical music title in the country. Monthly sales of the UK edition are 70,270. But it is the overseas sales which are the real triumph.

In March 1993, a US edition was launched under licence to Warner Music Enterprises. Available on subscription only, it is now the best-selling classical title in the US, with more than 250,000 subscribers. By the spring, English language editions will beon sale in India, South Africa, the Far East, Australia, Holland, Scandinavia and Belgium. A German language edition has just gone on sale in Germany; Japanese and French editions are planned for next year.

Part of the attraction for readers is the exclusive CD, which unlike those offered with other magazines is of a complete classical recording, usually originally recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio by one of the BBC orchestras.

But CDs on covers are very much the norm; one must look deeper for what sets it apart from the pack.

The answer seems to be that it caters not just for the CD buyer, but the concert-goer and the classical consumers who get music from television and radio. It also manages the terribly difficult equation of appealing to the expert and complete beginner, including a spot called Tuning Up for children and people who want to learn about new areas (a recent feature was for middle-aged people who wanted to learn an instrument).

One feature that could not have sat comfortably in a rival magazine was a piece by Germaine Greer on how women are not obsessive CD collectors like men, who, she claimed, showed off to other men about their collections "like dogs sniffing each other's bottoms").

"Getting high-quality writers and making it a good read was one of my prime objectives," says Fiona Maddocks, the editor. "The hardest thing is pitching it to the beginner and the expert. But everybody is a beginner in some area of classical music. What distinguishes us from our rivals is we're not just interested in recordings. I've always worked in the music field myself, but I was never a reader of any of the music magazines. My prime interest was the music itself."

She pays tribute to the BBC, which employed her when she was nearly eight months pregnant to launch a magazine eight weeks later. Having launched it, she brought her baby in every day to sleep under her desk.

The idea for the magazine came from another woman - the publishing director Heather Aylott, formerly the women's launch publisher with Emap. "Classical music was an obvious opportunity," she says, "with the growth of the CD market."

Almost as soon as they had launched the title, Aylott and Maddocks faced a Monopolies and Mergers Commission ruling that the BBC could not cross-promote, meaning Music Magazine has had only four mentions on BBC television in two years, and not many more on radio.

Nevertheless, it makes an operating profit; the BBC will stop funding as soon as it does not. Its global expansion makes that prospect unlikely.

Even those in the field accept that the market is very crowded, and there might be casualties. Graham Sheffield, director of music at London's South Bank Centre, says: "I find it hard to think they will all survive. I'm not sure there's a market for all that plethora. I get confused. If someone in the field like me is confused, the general readers must be even more so."