POP MUSIC / Band stand on the sand: Buying, selling, pitching and bitching. Philip Sweeney reports from Cannes on Midem

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The Independent Online
Just down the coast in St Tropez, Brigitte Bardot is locked in televisual combat with the butchers, calling on France to give up eating horsemeat. Here in Cannes, a thousand guests of EMI Music Publishing are attacking peacocks made of ham and giant pastrami butterflies, centrepieces of a lavish buffet following EMI's showcase concert with Duran Duran, Liane Foly, Eternal and US3. Midem, the annual International Record Music Publishing and Video Music Market, is back in town and the poodle and fur coat set on the Croisette is once again swamped with babes of every size and hue and artists and wheeler-dealers of every degree of credibility.

Although attendance, at almost 9,000 participants, is still climbing, some observers feel the event is quieter this year. The multi-faceted hive of the international music business is still enough to boggle the sturdiest intellect, even without the aid of Lanson Black Label and ham peacocks. Around the great multinational whales of BMG, EMI, Philips, Sony and Time Warner on the exhibition floor of the Palais des Festivals circulate shoals of smaller players buying, selling, licensing, pitching ideas.

Six companies have come from Saudi Arabia, where the public performance of pop music is unthinkable. Several Saudis have expressed interest in the Cakrawira music group of Jakarta, Indonesia, whose two dozen smiling delegates in purple satin company jackets include three Javanese TV stars. These ladies sing in playback daily at 3pm to a backing track of remarkably high quality, recorded by seven of the country's top traditional kroncong musicians and pressed into CDs for Midem. At the other end of the spectrum, Perleberg Inc of Florida is marketing its Happy Baby range of music for babies - a 'very good niche', a German executive remarked admiringly.

If the mood of the industry is cheerful - European recorded music sales rose slightly last year - uncertainty centres on technology. Sales of CDs have started to level off, as consumers complete the transfer of their collections from vinyl. The great new hopes of 1992 - Digital Compact Cassettes and MiniDiscs - have sold very badly so far, and new developments are making them outmoded. Numerous Midem demonstrations and conferences have focused on new interactive systems such as CD-i and CD- ROM and the air is thick with buzzwords - interactivity, digitisation, information super-highways. Above them all is 'format fatigue', most consumers being so confused they can't tell a CD-ROM from a pastrami butterfly.

A further vexation is preoccupying the French: the thorny old problem of the Anglo-Saxon cultural invasion. The Minister of Culture, Jacques Tourbon, has chosen Midem to launch the latest element of the counter-offensive, La Semaine de la Chanson - The Week of French Song. This is a nationwide campaign of concerts, radio and TV specials, adverts, posters, debates and general animation designed to 'throw a spotlight' on French lyrical creativity, which includes, to an important extent, music from francophone Africa and the Caribbean. And if this doesn't work, stronger measures are in hand. Last December, following two years of intense industry debate, the French Parliament voted to impose legal quotas of 40 per cent francophone music on radio stations in 1996. Quite how remains to be determined.

While most of the recording and publishing industry is solidly behind the scheme, Skyrock and Fun, the popular independent radio stations which are most blamed for the Anglo sell-out, are not giving in yet. 'We got our licence specifically as an international pop station 10 years ago,' Benoit Sillard, Fun Radio's president, said at the Midem Radio Forum. 'Now they want to change the rules . . . we intend to appeal to the European Courts and Commission.'

Jacques Tourbon's press conference revealed him to be a greyer figure than his publicity friendly predecessor, Jacques Lang, but he is regarded as competent, informed and determined. Much of his Semaine de la Chanson launch speech dealt with economic matters - the demanded reduction of value-added tax on records, aid to small music companies - and his artistic manifesto for francophone pop was a bald assertion: 'Ca swingue autant que le reste' - 'It swings as much as other music.'

A fair amount of supporting evidence has been supplied by the live acts at Midem, however. Less by international prospects such as Patricia Kaas and Liane Foly than by the up- and-coming talent playing in the Magic Mirror on the esplanade. This exquisite turn-of- the-century portable dancing, a jewel of bevelled glass, velvet drapes and zinc bar-tops, provided a perfect setting for acts such as Mano Solo, a powerful Brel-like singer / songwriter, and Rachel des Bois, another artist from the Negresses Vertes / Zingaro Circus school, who manages to be funny, sexy, original, musically inventive and very French.