Gramophone magazine: a history – the 1990s

James Jolly
Monday, January 22, 2024

Historically informed performance practice launched a new era in recorded repertoire, and the 1997 Gramophone Awards ceremony reached an audience of 2.5 million viewers on ITV

The Gramophone story now takes on a more personal perspective as, at the start of 1990, I took over as Editor from Christopher Pollard (I’d joined the magazine from university five years earlier, and then spent a short spell away at BBC Radio 3 as a producer). Having read Gramophone since my mid-teens it was a world I adored, and its reviewers were genuine heroes – meeting the likes of Michael Oliver, having listened to his measured and utterly entrancing voice on the radio for years, was a genuine thrill. And soon, these people who’d been simply initials – EG, RL, AB and so many more – became a daily part of my life.

The industry had changed, even during the five years I’d witnessed it at close quarters. The huge boost that classical recordings received with the advent of the CD had created a decade of phenomenal growth. As music lovers expanded their collections, or simply replaced treasured LPs with the CD equivalent (and now CDs were being issued at mid- and low-price), the huge interest in historically informed performance practice created yet more demand: John Eliot Gardiner, Roger Norrington, Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood in the UK, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (one of the movement's pioneers) in Austria, Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Brüggen and Ton Koopman in the Netherlands, René Jacobs, William Christie and, slightly later, Christophe Rousset in France, Nicholas McGegan in the USA, and many more were given essentially a tabula rasa to show us music in a vibrantly new light. Sales figures proved that music-lovers were actively engaged with this old wine in reproduction old bottles.

Luciano Pavarotti and Paul McCartney at the Gramophone Awards in 1997

One of the biggest problems for the industry – notably the major companies in the 1990s – was that an increasing number of executives came from outside the world of recorded music and had little feeling for a business that had to balance art and commerce. The situation wasn’t helped by a number of recordings that achieved the kind of sale figures usually witnessed in the pop or rock worlds. Football’s World Cup in 1990 gave us the first outing of The Three Tenors (José Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti). A congenial evening at the Caracalla Baths in Rome – I was there – gave no indication of what a phenomenon it would turn out to be (it went on to sell over 12 million copies worldwide and launched what was virtually a franchise).

A less-obvious bestseller was the Third Symphony by Henryk Górecki, with the London Sinfonietta and David Zinman, released by Nonesuch, and given huge backing by Classic FM and a marketing campaign masterminded by Warner Classics’s Bill Holland (ex-PolyGram). It would achieve sales of over one million copies worldwide. To an executive schooled in selling processed food or biscuits (as two company heads were) this was the formula that needed replicating. But it wasn’t so easy …

There were a couple of audio red herrings during the decade: Philips’s Digital Compact Cassette (launched in April 1992) and Sony’s MiniDisc (launched a few months later). Neither found favour with music-lovers as the CD already provided many of the advantages of the new formats, such as portability, reasonable resilience and extended playing time.

Jill Dando

Jill Dando hosts the 1997 Gramophone Awards at Alexandra Palace. It was watched by 2.5 million people on ITV

The 1990s also saw the arrival of two other classical record magazines: BBC Music magazine and Classic CD. BBC Music enjoyed the considerable advantage of a covermount CD, something beyond the financial reach of any competitor as they could commission a recording that, once broadcast, took on an ‘archive’ status that lowered its cost to manageable levels. Many in the industry saw the covermount as a direct competitor to their business and refused to advertise. We entered the covermount arena, but in a way that was closely related to the editorial of the magazine – samples of the Editor’s Choice (introduced in May 1993), and music to illustrate many of the magazine’s features. Later, we included artist interviews and monthly competitions. Happily, many readers who’d been initially opposed to a covermounted CD changed their opinion.

The reviews remained the beating heart of the magazine and in October 1994 we published the largest issue in Gramophone’s history (296 pages, largely thanks to a 56-page Hyperion insert). That this was possible was due to the vast expansion in the number of releases emerging from the record industry. The majors were recording as never before and with artist rosters that including a handful of conductors per label, duplication was not just inevitable but seemingly encouraged. (I remember looking at a Decca recording schedule and noting with surprise that the company was completing two recordings of Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony in the same week: Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco SO and Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Cleveland Orchestra.) It was a state of affairs that couldn’t go on. To keep music lovers abreast of the vast CD catalogue now available Gramophone launched its Good CD Guide, and a number of guides covering film music, jazz and musicals.

The other innovation from Gramophone, launched in 1996, was a CD-ROM (remember them!) that contained all 24,000 reviews from the first issue that reviewed CDs (March 1983) to date. This moved to the web when, the following year, was launched.

Having produced a monthly magazine since 1923, the success of the Awards – and the fact that the autumn traditionally saw the largest number of new releases during the year – we decided in 1999 to add a 13th issue (which usually sits between our October and November magazines) to focus on the award winners, but also allows us to review another 100-plus releases each. It adds considerably to the workload and creates some very short production periods each year, but has now become part of our life.

Gramophone April 1997

Renée Fleming on the cover of the April 1997 issue of Gramophone

After 55 years at the company’s offices on Kenton Road, Gramophone moved – not very far – to Sudbury Hill and a brand-new office, our vast library of recordings (which embraced 78s, LP and CD) coming with us. But we weren’t there that long because as the century drew to close, we were acquired by Michael Heseltine’s Haymarket Group, a company that had long wanted to add Gramophone to its portfolio. It was a sad day when we said goodbye to the Pollard family who had guided the magazine’s fortunes since 1924, through tough times and good ones, and who were in so many ways the soul of Gramophone, innately sympathetic to the complex balancing act that every record company engages with: how to create a lasting piece of art that also makes money.

Gramophone in the 1990s: Timeline

January 1990 James Jolly becomes Editor of Gramophone, Christopher Pollard becomes Managing Editor and Anthony Pollard Publisher

September 1990 The North American Edition of Gramophone is launched with an extra, region-specific section

September 1990 Philips issues its 180-CD ‘Mozart Edition’ in 45 volumes. (Wordwide sales would exceed one milllion discs.)

October 1990 Warner Classics launched around its three labels, Erato, Teldec and Nonesuch

October 1990 Yolanta Skura launches Opus 111 label in Paris

March 1991 All EMI classical recordings to be marketed under EMI Classics logo (Dog & Trumpet and Angel logos disappear)

March 1991 EMI acquires Virgin Records, and with it Virgin Classics which, in September, makes its first releases under EMI’s wing

May 1991 Sony announces MiniDisc

November 1991 Harley Usill, joint-founder of Argo and ASV, dies aged 66

January 1992 Warner Classics International acquires remaining shares in Erato

March 1992 Simon Foster, who left Virgin Classics in December 1991, named Director of BMG Classics

April 1992 Philips launches Digital Compact Cassette in the UK

November 1992 Sony launches MiniDisc in UK

May 1993 Gramophone introduces monthly Editor’s Choice

December 1993 Finlandia Records acquired by Warner Classics

November 1994 National Video Arts Corporation (NVC) becomes part of Warner Classics International

May 1995 Classics for Pleasure celebrates its 25th anniversary

September 1995 BBC inaugurates Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB)

January 1996 Gramophone launches GramoFile CD-Rom of archive reviews, containing all CD reviews since March 1983

May 1996 Gramophone moves offices from Kenton to Sudbury Hill, north London

June 1996 Virgin Classics moves to Paris with Alain Lanceron as President

June 1996 Philips acquires a majority shareholding in Gimell Records

July 1996 Music for Pleasure renamed EMI Gold

August 1996 EMI Music demerges from Thorn EMI

October 1996 Sidney Shure, of Shure Bros Inc, pickup and microphone manufacturers, dies aged 93

December 1996 Gramophone launches a monthly covermounted CD

October 1997 The Gramophone Awards, hosted by Jill Dando, and held at Alexandra Palace, is televised for the first time, by ITV, achieving an audience of 2.5 million viewers.

February 1998 Classics for Pleasure relaunched by EMI

April 1998 Gramophone celebrates its 75th anniversary

December 1999 Gramophone acquired by MIchael Heseltine’s Haymarket Group. Offices move to Teddington, south west London

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