Selling Gramophone to the iPod generation

By Colin Crummy

Stepping off the national rail at Teddington, it’s difficult to imagine a better location than this for the offices of ‘classical music Bible’, Gramophone magazine. The Southwest London suburb, home to travel agents advertising worldwide cruises and mobility shops selling stairlifts, feels a somewhat natural habitat for the 83-year-old publication.

It’s here I meet editor James Inverne to discuss a number of changes that have put a spring in the magazine’s step.

December 2005 saw the publication of its 1,000th issue and the move of its editor, James Jolly, after 15 years at the helm, to editor-in-chief.

In his place has come 30-year-old Inverne, previously Time magazine’s European performing arts correspondent.

Billed as "the world’s unrivalled authority on classical music since 1923", you’d imagine Haymarket’s Gramophone lives in as rarefied a place as the music it covers.

The truth is that the classical music industry has suffered in recent times and that the publication, like the music, has had to come down from its lofty perch.

There were six major classical labels 10 years ago; now there are three. New material has become thinner on the ground, meaning advertising in such a niche publication has fallen too.

The majors have turned to less esoteric talents to sell the genre, styling acts as operatic babes and boybands with posh voices.

When Jolly, as editor, announced that Gramophone was opening its arms to "other forms of music" in 2002, the doomsayers interpreted this as saying there wasn’t enough of its own air to keep it breathing.

Happily, his successor can report a better climate in 2006. The internet and MP3 players have made classical music digestible to people who previously would have found it alien and aloof.

"The privatising function of the iPod means what music you listen to isn’t dictated by musical snobbery; you can sneak that concerto on and none of your mates will be any the wiser," says Inverne.

If it seems a little optimistic that consumers will swap James Blunt for Bach, Inverne politely disagrees.

"It’s a great social leveller because no one is watching what you’re downloading, peer pressure is ebbing away. But there’s something trendy about being individual in your music taste.

"The culture of today encourages us to go find our own thing, that spirit of curiosity [that says] I will find what I like."

He cites two illustrations of the music’s resurgence: the BBC’s phenomenal Beethoven experiment, where 1,369,893 download requests were made for complete symphonies over week last year; and the fact that Classic FM is the highest ratings commercial radio station in the UK, with six million listeners every week (Haymarket also publishes Classic FM magazine).

The BBC trial revealed an audience the industry didn’t see, says Inverne. "It made the classical music industry really sit up and see this new audience. That’s an audience which will be really interested in coming to Gramophone.

"The strength of the net is also its weakness. When you find something, where the hell do you go next? That’s where a magazine like Gramophone comes in, because you read this and it brings you into the world."

There is too, he believes, more room in the magazines market for niche titles: "If you look at Time (which Inverne worked on for five years) and Newsweek, they are incredibly well-established news magazines and yet they are really having to find a reason to be read when there is 24 hour news on TV.

"They’re trying to do it by delving deeper, by doing 360-degree looks at stories that TV can’t and doesn’t attempt. They’re becoming more nichey."

The classical niche is one that Inverne has been immersed in since he was a child. His great grandmother, Molli Inverne, was an opera singer at the Met in New York and the family owned The Cumberland Hotel, which played host to entertainers such as Peter Sellers. Inverne attended his first opera at the age of five.

The idea of becoming a critic began when Inverne was spotted performing Richard III in a school play by editor-in-chief and chairman of Associated Newspapers, Sir David English. He wanted to nurture the actor in the teenager, but Inverne had other plans.

English became the boy’s journalism mentor, along with the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker. All three met every few months to discuss his progress.

"I couldn’t believe my luck," says Inverne now. "They had both been helped by other people; Jack by Terence Rattigan and David by Lord Beaverbrook.

"So they said, ‘If you ever do well, you should pass it on’. If I ever reach such dizzy heights I’ll be happy to."

Inverne became The Mail on Sunday’s classical critic after graduating from Queen Mary of Westminster University, and then arts editor on the cable TV channel, Performance.

When his two mentors passed away, he felt it time to "spread his wings" and write outside Associated, as previously loyalty to them had kept him within the company.

He has since contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph among others, and has written three books, including Jack Tinker: A Life in Review.

The route back to Gramophone began with Inverne’s appointment to Time, where he had a wide-ranging arts brief.

Despite his love of culture generally, it is patently obvious that the Gramophone gig is equivalent to a 15- year-old Arctic Monkeys fan getting his hands on the NME editorial desk.

Inverne admits that when he was growing up, he stuck Gramophone pages on his wall. "I should point out that I was a geeky kid," he laughs, as if any more clarification were needed.

What is clear is that Gramophone is very much his baby (although a more recent arrival has come in the form of his newborn child, Daron) and that his enthusiasm is unbridled.

He does believe that young people are interested in reading the magazine, the trick being not to abandon its roots while evolving the title.

"My great catchphrase in the office is, ‘it’s not about dumbing down but it’s about helping people to wise up’," he says. "And it’s not patronising, it’s exciting."

Inverne isn’t alone in his enthusiasm either. "The thing that surprised me about Gramophone is that it’s a really young team," he says. "The features editor is 27, the managing editor is 32 and the publisher is in his early 30s. It’s a really young, enthusiastic team and we’re living proof the classical music bug can get you at a young age."

The emphasis now is on pushing Gramophone forward, while retaining its core readership. Helpfully, the latest ABCs figures show a steadying of the ship, with copies sold up to 43,523, a year-on-year increase of 1.7 per cent (though the sector leader remains the BBC Music Magazine which sold 51, 272 copies, down 8.6 per cent year-on-year).

A series of podcasts has been initiated and Inverne hopes to roll out other "major changes" by June. "We have a very dedicated readership and we won’t be moving away from the beating heart of the magazine," says Inverne, "which is a serious-minded but not pofaced investigation of the music scene and that great excitement of exploring new riches all the time.

"But we can add new ingredients that reinforce the sense that there’s something really exciting about music. I believe every recording and performance is potentially an event; the excitement being what it could be. It’s crucial that the magazine reflects that and transmits that passion to the reader."

Somehow, with Inverne onboard, I suspect that won’t be that much of a problem.

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