The classic LP gives way to CDs for classics. [HD]People just aren't buying the `licorice pizzas' anymore
Boston — 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.
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.
``They wanted to bring it in,'' he adds. ``Mahler's a big seller in America.''
The current issues from the leading companies amplify the dominance of CD. The giant Polygram (makers of Deutsche Grammophon, London, and Philips records) sharply reduced its offerings between January 1986 and January 1987. DG dropped from 661 LPs to 255, London from 614 LPs to 393, and Philips from 423 LPs to 170, according to Berkshire Records, a company specializing in catalog cutouts. As a result, ``there'll be a lot of LPs in the clearance bins for those people who want to buy them,'' says Schwann's Mr. Crapo. Very few new records are being issued, he says, and older ones are being withdrawn.
Crapo's own publication proves the point. Schwann began issuing a monthly CD catalog in June 1986 and switched its monthly LP catalog to a quarterly in December of that year.
But while the disc caught on with classical music lovers because of the quality of the sound reproduction, it has not edged out LPs in the popular music field. ``LP sales far dominate CD sales'' in pop music, says Belote.
There are two widely cited reasons for this phenomenon. First, a recording spectrum that spans the most muted strings to the roar of brass and the crash of cymbals and timpani is just not generally needed for rock music, says Northeastern's Joiner.
And second, the price is not right. ``The average classical buyer is more affluent and willing to spend a good deal more money'' for his music than the average pop buyer is, Crapo notes.
The disc won the hearts of classical music devotees for a number of reasons, including the quality of its sound, its convenience, its long playing time (about 75 minutes in stereo, when a disc is fully recorded), its durability, and the fact that there is no stylus to replace, as there is for record players.
Despite its popularity, it is not difficult to find complaints about the disc. Perhaps most significant, audiophiles who spend thousands of dollars on stereo equipment maintain that the record actually sounds better than the disc. But even mundane things grate. The elongated plastic wrappers that allow CDs to be placed in LP racks and make them harder to steal irk Dopmeyer. ``I would hope that they stop using them,'' he says.
Some people complain that the jewel box, as the disc's protective case is called, takes up too much storage space compared with that of, say, a protective envelope.
And letter writers and columnists in Gramophone, a British publication specializing in recorded classical music, have taken CD-makers to task for failing to put a full hour or more of music on their discs, and for the quality of the accompanying (or even worse, nonaccompanying) literature that record companies include with the discs.
Lurtsema particularly savages compact discs, which he finds to be a general nuisance to him as a radio announcer.
He finds it awkward to carry a mix of LPs and CDs from the library to the studio.
And the listing of pieces on the back of the jewel boxes sometimes seems almost too fine to read, he says, and suggests that perhaps this is because the backs of record jackets have been photographically reduced to squeeze them onto the CD case. Turning from his turntable, he points to a piece of equipment that looks as though it belongs in a doctor's office. The ``tool,'' which is suspended on an arm, proves to be a giant magnifying glass set in a white case - purchased especially for minuscule print on disc literature.
Finally, there are the idiosyncratic listings. Lurtsema walks out of the studio, punches a code into the door of the locked room where WGBH's classical music is held, and passes rows of record shelves and CD closets on his way to his office, where he picks up a Hyperion recording of Robert Simpson's String Quartets Nos. 10 and 11. The CD's six sections, for no discernible reason, are labeled as 1, 3, 4, 7, 8, and 9/10.
Back in the studio, Lurtsema inserts the CD into the $2,000 Studer player. The timings of each cut vary by a few seconds from those listed. ``I hate to pick on poor Hyperion, because this has happened to just about every record company,'' he says.