COEN SOLLEVELD looks at an alternative life-style: "I have a friend who operates a small jazz label. He sells perhaps 4,000 records a year in this country, more overseas. He is doing what he wants to do, and he lives."

Solleveld, 61, is the head of the giant, international Polygram group of record companies, which sells a few hundred million records per year -- and he lives, too, in contrast to many American labels that are now floundering and sinking.

Polygram is a name relatively unfamiliar to American music-lovers, even though their shelves may be loaded with its products on such labels as Philips, Deutsche Grammophon, Mercury, London and Polydor, such artists as Herbert von Karajan, Arthur Fiedler, Seiji Ozawa, the Amadeus Quartet, I Musici, Sir Georg Solti and a host of others. In other countries, Polygram is or has been associated with many of the international (chiefly Anglo-American) rock and disco stars: Elton John, the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, ABBA, Neil Simon and Kiss, for example. In some cases, Polygram handles the total process, selecting artists and repertoire, recording, manufacturing and distributing the records. In other cases, it is the overseas distribution agent for independent companies that do their own production.

In 1978, a peak year for the industry, Polygram became the first record company in history to rack up more than $1 billion in sales, 24 percent above 1977. Final figures are not in yet for 1979, when the bottom fell out of many American record companies, but the projection is that Polygram's sales figures held steady and may have gone up by the odd $10 million or so.

Solleveld attributes this success to "a lot of hard work, planning, and good people."

"Being in the record business," he says, "we concentrate on what the business is all about -- the music."

At Phonogram, "the music" covers a lot of territory, geographically and stylistically, and that diversity is part of the secret of the company's success. Its interests range from Antal Dorati's recordings of the Haydn operas to the Bee Gees' "Saturday Night Fever," a band called Los Campiones that busted the charts in Argentina with "Argentina Te Queremos," and Junko Chashi, who is very big in Japan. w

What happened in pop music in 1979 was chiefly a drop in public acceptance of the big-name rock and disco stars, who are only a part of Polygram's catalogue but virtually the whole show for some American companies, which had nothing to fall back on. In some American companies that have both popular and classical lines, the loss of money on rock and disco has meant cutbacks in classical production, although that is a relatively small part of the market and not the area that encountered the most serious problems. p

At Polygram, the American branch had some of the difficulties that spelled catastrophe for more than one American company, but its worldwide structure braced it for the shock. Fans around the world tended to remain loyal to performers of their own nationality while they lost some of their interest in international repertoire. Classical music (about 12 to 14 percent of Polygram's sales in this country, 14 to 16 percent in Europe) held steady. Polygram's relation with big-name international stars, who are the most lucrative part of the business but also the most expensive and volatile, has been buffered by its other musicial interests.

As a result, today, while most American companies are cutting back their classical production and searching in panic for a new trend in pops, Polygram has been able to continue growing -- most recently by acquiring English Decca, which is known as London Records in this country. And when Billboard magazine held its annual International Music Industry Conference in Washington recently, Coen Solleveld was asked to give the keynote address on the future of the record business.

What he told his fellow record executives, based on recent demographic research, was that the consumer in the '80s will be self-indulgent, spending more of his time and money on leisure, but also discerning: "He will . . . be highly selective, having developed his buying habits during a period of scarcity and high inflation. He may be induced to spend more of what will be a higher disposable income, but only if he can be assured of quality, and on-going value. The choice will be to buy fewer, but better, goods -- goods that provide true benefits over a longer period of time."

If the music industry is to maintain its position in the future, he warned, "we will have to find ways to offer a far wider choice of music. . . . Our preoccupation with the latest pop product appears to make less sense with each passing year, anyway . . . The sobering fact is that for all our platinum, for all our so-called megasellers, music purchases represent an average of well under one-half of 1 percent of consumer expenditures in the major markets of the world."

To increase that share of the consumer market, he warned, "we will have to do a great deal more in cultivating eclectic music interest in the population at large," and "we could even find ourselves actually promoting home taping, but from a series of master tape banks accessible electronically via code for a fee or blanket license -- not from records or the radio.

"I think that it is unfortunately all to easy to forget these days exactly what business we are in, what with the returns, increasing legal complications, worries about the cost of money, the cost of transportation and pressing and four-color advertisements. We are in the music business, ladies and gentlemen pure and simple, and any system which provides the largest number of people with the most music, the most efficiently, is the system we should strive for." w

The kind of flexibility that Solleveld called for is usually easier to find in companies that are small and relatively new with less of a financial and psychological investment in old systems, treid-and-true repertoire and established stars. While it was busy becoming an industry giant, Polygram managed to maintain much of that flexibility by fostering diversity among the many companies that are part of it. Each of its three major classical labels, for example, has its own well-established style and strengths.

When Polygram was born in 1962, through a merger of Philips and Deutsche Grammophon, Solleveld said in a private conversation, "The two were supposed to be brought together -- but that proved to be not so easy.In 1966, when it became clear that a total integration would not work, it was brought in to try to make the merger function and grow. We found it was most effective to maintain separate, even competitive, creative units and to integrate the pressing and distribution -- the processes where a merger would be most efficient."

Before taking the presidency of Polygram, which he still holds, Solleveld had for five years been running the elector-acoustics division of Philips, a large Dutch electronics firm which was then developing the tape cassette. Born in Rotterdam, he had worked as a liaison officer with SHAEF in Germany and Norway during World War II, served as the Philips sales manager in Indonesia from 1946 to 1950 and returned to the Netherlands just at the point where the company was beginning to get into the record business. During the years he was the company's managing director in the Netherlands, Phillips pioneered some of the approaches that have helped make Polygram a world force in music: solid classical programming (with such stars as the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, I Musici and violinist Arthur Grumiaux), development of local talent in each country where they operated and the establishment of efficient international distribution for American pop stars.

In the beginning, Philips was the agent for European distribution of Columbia Records, and Columbia distributed Philips products on the Epic label in this country. But Philips also made its own contract with one of the outstanding American musical institutions, the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, and produced some recordings that are still landmarks. This was a very early fore-shadowing of what has only recently become a trend: the recording of American orchestras by European companies. New recordings by the orchestras of Washington, Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Baltimore are now heard in the United States on imported records -- generally on Polygram affiliates, except for Philadelphia which is now on EMI. This development is a tribute to the quality of American orchestras and of European recording companies.

Where Solleveld and his company will go from here is still uncertain, but the future looks a lot more secure for them than it does for some other companies that have tried to get rich quick by following passing trends.