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The classic LP gives way to CDs for classics. [HD]People just aren't buying the `licorice pizzas' anymore

By Richard L. WentworthStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 18, 1988


When Philips recently issued Mahler's Second Symphony (``the Resurrection''), with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the long-playing record was released in Europe. But it will not be sold in the United States. Instead, the performance is only available to Americans who have compact-disc or cassette players.

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The Mahler recording graphically illustrates the fact that classical music LPs are becoming scarcer and scarcer. With more people buying compact discs, classical music records probably won't be made at all in a few years, industry analysts say.

``They just don't sell. People do not buy them,'' says David Belote, classical department manager of Tower Records here.

``The tide turned so rapidly that it caught almost everybody by surprise,'' adds Robert J. Lurtsema, host of the Morning Pro Musica program on WGBH-FM in Boston.

Since 1986, Mr. Lurtsema says, the compact disc has been the buying public's favored means of acquiring classical music - so much so that some smaller labels have already stopped making records.

``Who would want one of those `licorice pizzas,' we call them now,'' asks Ralph Dopmeyer, head of the tiny Titanic Records, a recording company in Cambridge, Mass. ``They're totally antiquated.''

Mr. Dopmeyer says he made his last records about four years ago. ``I wouldn't dream of putting them out now.''

At the moment, supply and demand are keeping the consumer cost of new compact-disc issues at $15 to $17 as companies, in Mr. Belote's words, ``charge what the market will bear.'' But he predicts that the apparent leveling of CD player sales (see chart) will force companies to slash their new-issue prices to about $10 by 1990. ``They have to get more people to buy CD players.''

Although David Vernier, music editor of Digital Audio and Compact Disc Review magazine, concedes that the slower pace of player sales has ``got a lot of people nervous,'' he sees only a cautious attitude among record companies at this point. ``There's still a heavy reluctance to cut the prices,'' he says.

What record companies are doing instead, he notes, is releasing more of their old recordings on compact disc, at budget CD prices.

Meanwhile, says Lynn Joiner, ``there'll be some winnowing-out'' of plants making CDs. Mr. Joiner is head of Northeastern Records in Boston, which specializes in chamber music.

There are at least 12 disc manufacturers in the US, Mr. Vernier says, which means record companies have an easier time making CDs than they did when the technology had just emerged and there were only a handful of such makers in the world.

That's a boon for people like Dopmeyer. ``Just a few years ago, one had to get on one's knees and kowtow'' to get a CD made, he says, because makers faced a backlog of orders from record companies. Today discmakers are ardently wooing recordmakers. In just a few years, the cost of cutting a CD has dropped by two-thirds, he adds.

One kind of competition that record companies have not relished is the potential of digital audio tapes (known as DAT) to muscle in on compact discs. According to those who have heard them, these tapes offer such astonishing clarity that a DAT copy sounds as good as the original. Recordmakers have worried that pirating of their CDs could destroy the disc industry.

But DAT is not yet offered in this country, and when it does become available, Mr. Belote doesn't see DAT as a threat to CDs.

Nor does Paul Crapo, editorial manager of the Schwann catalogs of recorded music. ``I never did,'' he says. ``It seemed to me to be a complementary situation, rather like LPs and cassettes.''

While the debate rages over DAT, CD sales surge on. Just how popular are CDs in relation to LPs? If any exact answer exists, it's being kept a secret. A spokeswoman for the Recording Industry Association of America says she had no figures for classical music, and major record companies decline to release their sales figures.

But the trend is clear.

The Boston Symphony's Mahler recording, which was issued on record in Europe, where the LP remains the favorite means of presenting recorded music, was not imported into the US after record company executives considered the generally depressed US sales of records, the worsening position of the dollar against European currencies, and the expense of importing boxed sets into this country, according to Tower's Belote.