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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

New contender in the battle of the upper shelves

by Norman Lebrecht / February 23, 2000

MORE trouble between the sheets. Word leaks from New Grove, the once and future bible of musical lexicography, that its esteemed editor, Stanley Sadie, has left his desk.

All perfectly amicable, it seems. Dr Sadie, who made such a fine job of the 1980 New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians that Macmillan entrusted him with the next edition, was given a whole week to clear his drawers rather than the customary hour. "I'm 69, you know," says Sadie, "and it's a good thing for younger people to take over. I'm not that interested in all the electronics."

Sadie's name will remain on the spine and John Tyrrell, who has inherited the editorial mouse, is a respected scholar, the leading non-Czech Janácek man. Teams of sub-editors are being sent away for weekends in Suffolk, under orders from Macmillan's German owners, Holzbrinck, to blitz the text into shape for publication in November. Everything is under control.

Still, when an in-flight announcement an hour before landing tells you that the captain has been dropped and the co-pilot has ordered full speed ahead, your confidence in the prospect of a safe and scheduled landing might be slightly shaken.

Such tremors, however, are mere blips when set beside the turmoil that is gripping the glossy pack of music magazines. It is seven months since the family owners of Gramophone cashed in their chips after 76 years and collected some six million quid from Haymarket, the autos-to-infotech publishers. The first thing the new owners did was to sack half the staff. The second was to order an editorial revamp that topped the famously dense reviews with a hard-sell caption reading, "Simply super Sibelius" or "Violin-fanciers will love this record".

Some ailing labels may have welcomed this unsolicited puffery, but wary consumers began to wonder if their journal of record had not been mildly dumbed down. As for the sacked staff, several teamed up with the former advertising manager, Barry Irving, a 34-year Gramophone veteran, to produce a rival monthly that will launch next week.

International Record Review (IRR) promises detailed surveys of all the new classical releases in essays of up to 1,500 words, many of them polysyllabic. Several of the reviewers are Gramophone stalwarts, among them Robert Layton, Michael Oliver and John Warrack. IRR will appear, says Irving, "on the Wednesday nearest the first of the month" - which used to be Gramophone day. It can be bought only by subscription, or at specialist record stores. Irving is aiming for a 25,000 uptake. A preview of the magazine in a Canadian newspaper last week drew 300 subscription inquiries.

The gentle birth of a highbrow commentary should not have caused much flurry on the upper shelves, but such is the fragility of the music market that IRR has provoked industrial panic. Gramophone has put several writers under exclusive contract and BBC Music magazine has warned contributors that if their by-line turns up in IRR they can kiss BBC Music goodbye.

Gramophone sells 60,000 copies, BBC Music twice as many. A third monthly, Classic CD, mops up 30,000. Half the sales are overseas, Britain having cornered the English-language market in musical information.

The common weakness is that all these magazines rely primarily on record-label advertising, and most classical labels are in trouble. Last month's Classic CD had only six pages of record ads. When IRR pops up next week with 38 pages of advertising, alarm bells will jangle. And if IRR, with uncompromising severity, claims the allegiance of hard-core classical buffs with a five-disc-a-month habit, the rest of the sector will find itself whistling up crossover creek.

Our magnificent diversity of press opinion is much preferable to monolithic America, where one broadsheet has a near-monopoly on arts criticism. Appearances, however, can deceive. Diversity, in a minority interest such as classical music and numismatics, can dilute the talent pool to a point of stagnancy.

British music mags share many of the same writers, features and attitudes. None has a defining editorial personality. Compared with music journals in less competitive territories - Scherzo in Spain, Diapason in France - the British music press is a milky tea, heavily sugared by record-company PRs.

A dose of critical rigour is sorely needed, and IRR might be just the ticket. There is a lesson here, known to all who have seen the film American Beauty. When a new management regards experienced staff as dispensable, there can be a price to pay. I hope the German owners of New Grove know what they are doing.






Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999