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Thanks To Cd, Classical Sales Are Fortissimo

December 21, 1986|JOHN VOLAND

For the industry responsible for bringing Vladimir Horowitz and Andre Previn into the living room, all of 1986--which marked some of the highest sales ever--has been one long Christmas-shopping season.

And it's the technological breakthrough represented by the compact disc that's responsible for all this good cheer.

So far as the $150-million classical records industry is concerned, the advent of the CD marked the renaissance of this once-moribund business: the format's emergence is sparking renewed interest of consumers, energizing new activity on the part of comatose record labels and invigorating the artist-and-repertory departments of the largest companies.

In 1985-86, classical CDs accounted for fully 20% of the total CD market--a figure markedly different from classical's 7% share of total record/tape/CD sales--and industry executives cite the technology's arrival as the main spur behind a 15% sales jump in 1985.

Yet, in spite of the specter of newer technologies--such as digital audio taping (DAT)--threatening the instant dominance of the CD, no one in the industry seems concerned about the possible downside of the emphatically positive response given the new kid on the block: namely, being left holding the technological bag when something even newer (and more in demand) comes along. "(CDs) are here to stay," said Thomas Z. Shepard, MCA Classics head. "Classical consumers have traditionally demanded quality, and finally we're able to supply them with that in quantity. There's no evidence that this demand will change anytime soon."

At this stage, most industry executives believe the CD--with its convenience, capacity and flexibility, to say nothing of its sound--represents the cutting edge of retail technology, and almost every label which can afford to do so has swung behind the new format with a firm and uniform step.

This is especially true for classical records' "Big Five"--Angel, CBS Masterworks, DGG, London and Philips--who together account for the overwhelming majority of the artists currently recording, the product itself and the impetus to adopt new technologies. And the label heads with whom Calendar spoke say their companies have cast their lots--and future profits--emphatically with the CD.

"Technology has always been a strong consideration for us," said Nancy Zannini, vice president in charge of Philips Classics. "Therefore, the CD figures to be a very important aspect of our plans. We're cutting down LP production pretty severely, although as long as people want them, we'll make them. But CDs are replacing cassettes in cars and LPs at home, so we're moving very strongly in that direction."

Zannini added that CDs account for about 55% of Philips' total dollar sales, and she predicted that that figure would rise to "right around 70%" within the next decade. Amsterdam-based Philips is now busily reissuing classic mono (but digitally re-mastered) recordings made in the 1940s by conductor Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra--and issuing them only in CD.

"These discs are pretty much for the specialist, and it's our perception that the specialist has already committed to the CD format," Zannini said.

Since Philips is one arm of the giant Polygram distribution system--DGG and London are the other two--that company's production schedule is closely mirrored by those of the other two. Differences arise in terms of repertory, artists and size of catalogue, but all three labels, according to figures published in Billboard magazine, are heavily committed to the CD format: both DGG and London anticipate increasing the CD portion of their total output 65% or 70% by 1991.

Bonnie Barrett at CBS Masterworks said all of her label's 1987 releases--some 70 titles in all--will be available simultaneously in CD, LP and cassette formats, and added executives at CBS "have the feeling that CDs will eventually eclipse LPs, but we insist on keeping the latter in the product mix. There are just too many consumers out there who haven't switched over." Right now the label's CD stake stands at "around 50%" and will increase an unspecified amount over the next five years.

Barrett added that CBS is also scouring its sizable back catalogue for "historical" material to digitally re-master and issue on CDs, such as Leonard Bernstein's initial Mahler symphony cycle with the New York Philharmonic and conductor Bruno Walter's many recordings for the label. These, like Philips' Mengelberg recordings, will be issued solely on CD.

But for all the plans of the major labels regarding CD, none of them seem to take DAT or any other looming technology into account. Most are flatly dismissive--"DAT is way in the future; it's like a space station for us," said a CBS executive who asked not to be identified--or are observing the situation very carefully, as Polygram president Guenther Hensler is doing.

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