CONFERENCE / Unconventional acts: Philip Sweeney reports from MIDEM in Cannes - a stew of music, business and Thai disco sensations

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The Independent Culture
The middle-aged men in baseball caps are back on the Croisette. The Hotel Martinez is raking in its annual windfall from 40F beers handed down by sweating barmen like emergency rations to the milling throng of 2am networkers. The 27th edition of MIDEM, the world music business trade fair, is back in town.

There are 8,700 participants from 2,500 companies in 66 countries this year - newcomer nations include Malta, Bophuthatswana and Thailand. Thailand is represented twice over. First, there's Siam Motors Co Ltd of Bangkok, a company with interests in jazz, radio and video, and an elusive nine-strong delegation, including assorted presidents and vice-presidents and two persons listed as 'students'. The second prong of the Thai attack is Manee, a 'singing sensation' of the glossy Seventies disco variety sponsored by an Ontario promoter: a performance at the Carlton Casino inspired one viewer, a Canadian PR man, to reel into the Martinez bar afterwards in a state of awed disbelief, claiming he'd just seen 'the worst show in the world'.

The great majority of MIDEM business concerns the European and American pop / jazz /classical middle-of-the- road, but a significant strand of 'world music' activity demonstrates the extent to which once-exotic musics have penetrated the establishment. The opening night cocktail concert in the huge Palm Beach Casino featured such well-accepted acts as the African Baaba Maal and the Antillean Tanya St Val, as well as the extraordinary and boisterous band of the Nubian star Ali Hassan Kuban, whose repertoire is entirely tailored to the southern Egyptian country weddings that are still his principal source of employment.

The several dozen other MIDEM concerts have included a star-studded but tame musical tribute to Marvin Gaye, a blend of refreshing young talent (Omar, The Pasadenas, Galliano) and Hollywood schlock (Diana Ross gushing and shimmering down a video link from the States), and an impressive and successful experiment linking the 16-strong WDR Big Band of Cologne with eight progressive flamenco players led by the saxophonist Jorge Pardo, the bass player Carles Benavent and the guitarist Juan Manuel Canizares, all supporting the raw, pure gypsy voice of Ramon El Portugues. That concert was promoted by the Spanish music authors' society SGAE, whose energetic funding and organising have continued to give new Spanish music a high profile at MIDEM, as at other international music business gatherings.

At MIDEM the main business is business, and concerts are icing on the cake. Business means lawyers, and the hundred or so members of the Association of Entertainment Lawyers have been meeting here, as every year, to discuss matters such as the legality of 'parallel importing' - dealers selling cheaper, American-manufactured records in, say, France in competition with the official French-released versions - or the implications of a dollars 200m lawsuit being brought by the estate of Igor Stravinsky against the Walt Disney Company for a share of the video profits of the film Fantasia.

Legal action at MIDEM is not confined to the conference room. Two British record companies, Tring International and Sound Solutions, whose logos and promotional materials prominently adorned MIDEM participants' information packs, found their stands abruptly closed down on Tuesday night after representations by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, whose lawyers monitor unlicensed reproduction of recordings, commonly known as piracy. Meanwhile, the daily Midem News magazine has featured a fascinating series of adverts by the British independent label Charly and the American giant MCA, in dispute over the minutiae of rights to the classic R&B catalogue of the old Chess records, in which Charly quotes US Justice Department allegations of MCA / Mafia links. Even MIDEM's 1993 music industry Man of the Year, the patrician Jean- Loup Tournier (brother of the novelist Michel), is steering his enterprise, the wealthy French copyright society SACEM, through less than placid waters; hundreds of small discotheque owners are seeking court redress against what they regard as SACEM's excessive performance levies, and investigations by the European Commission into the organisation's charges and allegedly restrictive practices have been causing controversy.

Another industry veteran who has been much lauded at this MIDEM is George Martin, here for three reasons. The first is to launch, at a time when demand for studios is plummeting, a new pounds 12m recording complex, setting new world standards, in a restored Victorian church in Hampstead - his previous two premises, Air Studios in Oxford Street and the island of Montserrat having been reclaimed by the landlord and swept away by a hurricane respectively. Apart from that, Martin attended a mayoral lunch in his honour at the municipality's beautiful 1920s Villa Jean-Gabriel Domergue, at which he was presented with the gold medal of the city of Cannes.

Filling in time between the two events, Martin saw The Making of Sergeant Pepper, last year's ITV documentary on his seminal creative collaboration with the Beatles, pick up another chunk of gold, the Croisette D'Or, top prize in the second International Visual Music Awards. This event, founded as part of MIDEM last year, has been notable so far chiefly for a sketch-based awards ceremony of mind-bogglingly odd camp, of vastly excessive length, and possessing a script clearly conceived in French and transferred mystifyingly into English. All the ceremony needs to achieve world-class, in fact, is a Thai singing sensation; and who knows what '94 will bring.