Rejected by America - but our pop stars aren't singing the blues

Many artists are building careers and fortunes on European sales rather than spending months on the road in an attempt to crack the US
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The Independent Culture

Some seemingly unconnected events this week say something significant about the British music industry.

Some seemingly unconnected events this week say something significant about the British music industry.

Firstly, as has been widely reported, the American Hot 100 singles chart failed to contain a single British record. It is the first time the US charts have been Brit-free since 1963 when the long-forgotten Caravelles became the first British group to make it in America with their song "You Don't Have To Be Baby To Cry". (For those wondering if Beatlemania has been written out of history, The Beatles – who ruled British music in 1963 – didn't release their first American single until 1964).

There is not much comfort in the album charts either, with Craig David a lowly 81 and the heavy metal survivor Ozzy Osbourne at 97.

Britain's favourite soft-rock band, Travis, get good audiences for their live gigs in America but are not played much on radio; and their album The Invisible Band has sold just 244,000 copies. Ditto Stereophonics, whose Just Enough Education To Perform sold just 57,000. Oasis' last album, Familiar To Millions, was – as the Financial Times drily reported last week – "familiar to just 68,000."

If the absence of British talent on the American charts is significant, another event is on the surface far less significant. It is the first appearance in the magazine Billboard, the bible of the music industry, of what is to be a regular European supplement. Thom Duffy, the international editor, special sections, for Billboard, says: "We wanted to spotlight the increasing importance of Europe to the music industry worldwide. It is clear the European music market carries more influence than ever.

"No longer are European artists confined by language or culture to acclaim in their home markets. Albums by European acts regularly scale platinum peaks across the Continent and the UK and go on to global success. And Europe helps launch international artists to the world. Record labels have rolled out regional management and A&R staff in Europe to bolster their artist development efforts in individual markets."

The decision by Billboard to keep a much closer eye on what is happening in the industry across the continent, and the absence of a British single in the US charts are in fact not unconnected. The British music industry is changing the direction in which it is looking. America is no longer the only foreign market worth bothering about.

Indeed, the British Council, strongly encouraged by the Association for Independent Music, the umbrella group for the UK indie labels, will announce shortly that it is to open an office in New York to promote British music.

A more Euro-centric focus is not the only reason, of course, that American record buyers and British artists are finding it harder to relate to each other. The dance music obsession in Britain, familiar to any viewer of Top of the Pops, has barely registered in America. Recent American music fads, most notably hip hop at the moment, have only a limited market over here. Rap also has a far smaller fan base over here than in America, where it sells as much in the suburbs as in the ghetto.

And British bands are not wild about doing the sort of promotional work needed to make it in America – trudging around mid-West radio stations, or playing anonymous towns.

Robert Sandall, who used to run Virgin's publicity, says: "At Virgin, we had to make the decision: do you want to take 18 months out of a band's career to break America after which they might be completely burned out? We had to make that decision with Gomez, for example. It would have taken them out of Europe and their home base. It was the same story with Skunk Anansie"

Europe, Mr Sandall says, is "becoming more of an alternative." Certainly, there are better relationships between British and European record companies than British and American companies, which have always been thorny."

But Sandall, who believes the decline in British popularity has been exaggerated, knows a British band can succeed if it decides to spend sufficient time and energy on America.

Bush are the most successful British export in years. Mr Sandall says: "They went and parked themselves in America and played America. The problem is you don't have time for the rest of the world, and so they're not that big over here."

British bands can make it still, Sandall believes. Oasis were on the verge of making it, selling two million copies of ( What's the Story) Morning Glory before blowing it when the band did not stay for its whole tour.

Dido, with the biggest selling album in the world last year, Radiohead and Coldplay all show it can still be done.

Dido's figures for her album No Angel are instructive. She sold 14 million copies. Two million of those were in the UK; six million in Europe and six million in the USA. So the USA remains massively important but Europe can be as important. Equally, it's a sobering thought that, in the 80s, Michael Jackson sold 45 million with Thriller, Dire Straits 30 million with Brothers In Arms. In America, record buyers are buying less; and are increasingly buying local bands.

Some of the huge selling American acts are much less well known over here. Kid Rock, for example, sold over 10 million copies with his breakthrough album Devil Without A Cause but has made minimal impact in Britain.

Some artists also claim that to make it in America demands artistic compromises. Coldplay have been prepared to make the compromises necessary for American penetration. With US radio stations still reluctant to give airtime to new British bands, they are doing deals with big companies to feature in advertising campaigns, as a way of getting their music heard. Badly Drawn Boy's music has featured in a Gap advert; Doves lent a song to the American Red Cross, and Coldplay's "Yellow" was used for ABC television.

Many British bands still regard putting their music in commercials as selling out. Stereophonics have turned down offers and David Gray is also opposed. "It's staggering the amount of money you're offered," he says, "but music is more important than selling mashed potatoes or a dodgy jacket made in the Philippines."

Some of the reasons for the British decline in America will be featured in next month's British Council report, commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, regarding the setting up of a UK Music Office. The report's author is Doug D'Arcy, former president of Chrysalis Records.

Though the report acknowledges the dramatic loss of the UK's market share in the US since the 1980s has been impacted by the development of certain musical genres (notably rap, hip-hop and R&B) in which the UK has found it hard to compete, it cites a couple of main reasons for the decline:

First, the trading conditions for marketing UK musical exports within the US have become less favourable over recent years. Though the US may be famed for its commitment to open markets, the world's most lucrative music market is also one of the most closed. In 2000, some 92 per cent of the US recorded market was accounted for by sales of local acts, with only Pakistan registering a higher share of homegrown music in its national charts. (But there are high levels of piracy of western music in Pakistan, so the US is easily the most nationalist music market in the world.)

Second, UK artists, managers, labels and publishers face escalating marketing costs, an increasingly consolidated and fragmented radio market and more incentives for American-controlled companies to prioritise their own artists and writers. With distribution deals harder to find, UK labels have been tempted to opt for short-term benefits of licensing, to the detriment of sustainable business success.

It might be unwise to exaggerate the slump as part of a long-term trend. Last year saw a dramatic transformation in British fortunes in the US. British artists had an 8.8 per cent share of Billboard's top 100 albums over the year, compared to 1.7 per cent in 2000 and just 0.2 per cent in 1999, an all-time low.

Stars such as Sade – who now barely causes a ripple in Britain – and Dido were among artists who had big-selling albums in America in 2001. But for American success look well beyond rock. One of the most sought-after new stars in the US is the Welsh teenage diva Charlotte Church. She spearheaded the "classical crossover" invasion of America,and the US appears to have been fascinated by the concept of classically trained singers presented as pop stars and performing a range of material from operatic to middle-of-the-road and pop. Russell Watson, Bond and Sarah Brightman are others who did well last year.

Mr D'Arcy said yesterday: "There are musical reasons why there are problems. Rap and R&B are big in America and we don't do them particularly well. But we also need a structure there. From the Sixties onwards I went to America, opened offices and had staff there. That doesn't happen any more. So there is a need for a British music embassy. Artists who do well there like David Gray, Dido and Radiohead have good support mechanisms. Dido had an American management company, Network, she toured, she built a fanbase. People say being on the Eminem record helped but many people who have been sampled have not done as well."

But there's no guarantee proven British talents will be popular in the US. Robbie Williams is considering a deal with EMI allegedly worth £40m; and the new head of EMI, Alain Levy, has said he needs three acts capable of generating sales of £10m worldwide. Williams would clearly need to be one of those but has so far failed to break in to America. The Ego Has Landed, a compilation from two of his British albums, managed 564,000 US sales, but his last album Sing When You're Winning, sold just 122,000. His current multi-million international seller Swing When You're Winning isn't even released in America.

As opposed to Britain and Europe, industry pundits believe America wouldn't get the irony.

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