Media: The battle for the eyes and ears of classical music lovers: The boom in CD sales was sweet music to publishers and competition is intensifying, says Norman Lebrecht

CLASSICAL music lovers are facing an unprecedented autumn offensive. In a multi-million pound circulation war, magazine publishers are chasing the small change that people have left after the seasonal battery of star concerts and CD releases.

First into the fray, on 21 August, is BBC Enterprises with a new monthly, the BBC Music Magazine, covering recorded and live music. Its launch will be hampered a little by last week's decision by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission that the BBC should not promote its own products too heavily on television, but it will carry a free cover CD with a complete symphony, played by a BBC orchestra or drawn from corporation archives. Edited by Fiona Maddocks, formerly of the Independent's arts page, it promises 'unrivalled breadth and depth' of classics coverage and close links with Radio 3.

Next out is a little glossy from Northern & Shell, publisher of the magazines Penthouse, Forum and For Women. Out in September, the N & S project has only a provisional title - CD Classics - and no dummy pages to show potential advertisers. It is aimed, says Kate Price Thomas, its launch editor, 'at people who don't know that much about classical music and don't have a large disc collection.'

Heather Aylott, publisher of the BBC Music Magazine, also imagines 'a groundswell of people in their thirties with CD players who are looking to get into classical music and want to know how.'

Her vision is fuelled by the hits of Nigel Kennedy and the Three Tenors, and a trebling of UK classical album sales in the past decade to 15 million a year.

But the boom has died this year and classical sales are stagnant. 'We sailed through previous recessions,' explains Christopher Pollard, editorial director of Gramophone magazine, 'because our market was made up of people who would economise on anything rather than give up buying new releases. But the market expanded in the Eighties, and all of a sudden no one's going into the shops.'

Monthlies such as Gramophone depend on record company advertising, which has been stretched to the point of transparency. There are already four magazines devoted to classical records, apart from others dealing with opera (Opera, Opera Now), hardware (Hi-Fi News, What CD, etc), scholarship (Musical Times) and general news (Classical

Music).

Britain sustains more music periodicals than any other nation except Germany. In the United States, the last music magazine, Musical America, shut down this year after more than a century of publication.

For the past 70 years, classical record buyers have turned on the first Wednesday of the month to Gramophone, founded by the sharp-tongued Scottish novelist Compton Mackenzie to campaign for the technical and artistic improvement of acoustic records. Its acerbic tone was soon blunted by intimacy with the record trade. Gramophone now consists of a splash of star interviews, followed by dense triple columns of scholarly scrutiny of new releases. Overseas subscribers, mostly from the US, account for a third of its 72,000 circulation.

Gramophone's dominance was dented in 1989 when Future Publishing, the Bath-based home computer specialist, came up with a winning formula in Classic CD. It provided a reader-friendly layout, jaunty reviews and - the clinch - a free cover CD containing clips of the month's most interesting releases. With 61,000 UK sales, Classic CD overtook Gramophone on home turf (though it crashed in the US) and won an equal amount of advertising.

A third record monthly, CD Review, launched in 1987, has no audited circulation and is secretive about its owners. Sales are estimated at between 20,000 and 40,000. Starved of big-label advertising, it concentrates on small companies and esoteric releases.

Stung into self-defence, Gramophone begat Classics earlier this year, lighter in approach and reviewing low-priced recordings. Instead of clawing back advertising from the competition, however, it ate into the record companies' allocation for Gramophone itself and failed, apparently, to sell its initial print run of 75,000. Audited circulation figures have yet to appear, but there are signs that Classics has found a readership and achieved some overseas penetration. Gramophone is also bringing forward its own publication day by a fortnight to get in ahead of Classic CD, and is reviving a long dormant jazz section.

The key to survival for these publications and for newcomers is record company support - not just advertising but access to star interviews and CD clips. N &S has met with a fairly cool reception from advertisers so far, but it insists it will run the new title for at least a year.

The BBC submission was more respectfully received. Labels are advertising heavily in the initial issues on promises of a projected 150,000 print run and a sale of 80,000. 'This is a commercial venture,' says Ms Aylott. 'We are supported by the record trade because they see us as expanding the market.'

EMI has booked the inside front cover on a long-term basis. But other leading labels are unhappy about the BBC's free cover symphony and warn they may withdraw advertising. 'It's all very well featuring snippets on a free disc,' says one executive. 'But how can we hope to sell a full- priced Pathetique if the BBC is giving away 100,000 for free?'

BBC Enterprises has sunk a seven-figure sum into its magazine and will defend it more vigorously than IPC backed its predecessor, the ill-fated 3 magazine. Battle is about to be joined and the tussle should provide more enjoyable reading than the record trade's annual balance sheets.

(Photograph omitted)

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