Radiohead's risk pays off with US chart-topper

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The Independent Culture

The British music industry breathed a sigh of relief yesterday as Radiohead's new album, Kid A, went to the top of the American charts.

The British music industry breathed a sigh of relief yesterday as Radiohead's new album, Kid A, went to the top of the American charts.

Radiohead are the first British band to make No1 in America since Prodigy in 1997. Earlier that year the Spice Girls and Bush also had No1 albums. The last British single to go to No1 in America was also in 1997 - Elton John's Princess Diana tribute, "Candle in the Wind".

In the interim, British bands have failed to make it across the Atlantic, and the charts from Britain and America have had little in common.

The contrast with 25 years ago is remarkable. The US album chart in October 1975 was filled almost entirely by British artists, including Rod Stewart, David Essex, Pink Floyd and the Who. The only US artist in the top 10 was a posthumous Jim Reeves.

Yesterday, Radiohead's success was held up as an example to the rest of the industry. Tony Wadsworth, chief executive of EMI, on whose Parlophone label Radiohead record, said: "The message is clear for UK companies: take risks, ditch the formulae and support creative artist development, because it pays off."

His comment comes after a searching self-examination by the music industry into the lack of British success in America. A survey of music industry figures by the magazine Billboard has come to a damning conclusion to explain the lack of influence British music now has on American tastes. It says that "too many contemporary UK acts do not have, or are not encouraged to develop, the work ethic that once made the UK a rich source in the US".

Roger Ames, the chairman and chief exexutive of Warner record company says: "Working America is akin to working the whole of Europe at the same time ... Video helped for a while, but now there's less and less video play, so it's more important for acts to turn up and do the things local acts do."

Boy George, who did break America in his Eighties prime, told Billboard: "People in America looked for revolutionary ideas, but that's stopped now. The industry here has stopped caring about the quality of material."

Some new British acts are finding some success in America through hard work, but have yet to set the world on fire across the Atlantic. David Gray, the singer songwriter enjoying great success in Britain, has put considerable promotional efforts into an American breakthrough, and entered the Billboard chart at No190. He says the way to do it over there is: "Touring and touring, building up a very solid fan base ... In America, that's what you've got to do if you want enduring success. It's a vast project."

A similar sense of weariness at the size of the task is expressed by Travis, a massive success story in Britain and now beginning to be recognised in America. Fran Healy of Travis says: "We've spent about 20 weeks in America this year and we've been through enough to know that people don't give a toss about Britain. It doesn't feature on the news, or even on MTV. They connect Britain with Sting and the more established sort of bands."

One British band doing reasonably well in the US is the pop trio BBMak, who had a top 15 single there with "Back Here", despite little recognition in Britain. Their manager, Diane Young, says: "You have to be prepared to fly East Coast to West Coast and endure a gruelling schedule, do the meet and greet, press flesh, go into radio stations, meet retailers. You come home from America, stick the radio on, and the charts in England are so false and fake. In America you hear these bands, and it's real music, real talent."

She is not alone in believing that the failure is in British music itself , rather than a lack of work ethic. Bernard Doherty, publicist for the Rolling Stones and several other British bands, said: "It has been a disaster. It's really down to the fact that we're not producing the bands. In America, bands like Limp Bizkit and the Foo Fighters are capturing the imagination of mainstream rock audiences. We have good new bands like Coldplay, but they haven't infiltrated the American consciousness."

A telling comment comes from Jonathan Shalit, the former manager of Charlotte Church, whose album was one of only two from Britain to sell a million copies in America last year. "If you listen to American productions, particularly pop, they're so superior," he said. "In England there are too many amateurs having a go. In many cases videos from America are of a much higher level, their expectation of visual imagery is huge, and I don't think we give them what they require."

He added that the growing difference in taste between American and British audiences was illustrated by the fact that the British rock star Paul Weller has just cancelled his American tour amid fears that it might not pay its way.

But maybe there is a secret weapon. This week Rolf Harris, aged 70, became one of the oldest artists to enter the British charts. His latest record, "Fine Day", is at No24. Will the Americans be able to resist?