Figures released this week underline the sense of decline: the estimated share of worldwide record sales by UK artists fell from 25 per cent in 1985 to 15 per cent in 1993. Remember the British motor-cycle industry? The British film industry? British industry? It can't be happening again, can it?
Pop music has been a buoyant export earner for Britain for 30 years. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elton John, Culture Club and Duran Duran cut the balance of payments deficit by millions. British record company earnings are still enormous - pounds 2bn last year. But the proportion earned abroad is falling. Worse, like the British car industry in the Seventies, our best-selling models overseas are approaching obsolescence: the Clapton, the John, the Collins, the Stewart. The most recent new product that had any serious sales abroad was the Michael in 1988, and it is presently off the road undergoing a complete overhaul.
'People had grown accustomed to the fact that since the Beatles, Brit artists had dominated the white rock field throughout the world,' says Paul Gambaccini, editor of the Guinness British Book of Hit Singles. 'Some of us thought as long ago as the mid-Eighties that there was no reason why it would always be so. Even then the decline has proven more swift than even I had considered.'
It is in the American market - the biggest in the world, worth dollars 8.9bn in 1993 (pounds 6.2bn) - that the collapse has been most visible. As recently as 1988 there were nine Brits in Billboard's annual best-selling singles of the year chart. Last year only two acts - UB40 and the Proclaimers - were among the 30 top sellers, and both were with songs from Hollywood soundtracks.
There have been lean times before. In 1962 our sole big seller over there was Acker Bilk; in 1972 Gilbert O'Sullivan. But the Nineties appear to represent a completely new market. 'Remember,' says Jason Swift, a record business analyst, 'we are still earning as much in real terms, mainly thanks to the high profits from CDs. It is our market share that has diminished, because the world market has changed radically as it has increased.'
Indeed, at the same time as Brits are faltering in the US, the success of American acts in the UK market has declined almost as significantly.
'When MTV arrived, everyone thought it would homogenise the world pop market,' says Gambaccini. 'Instead, the last five years has seen an extraordinary fragmentation, and there are fewer artists capable of overcoming this provincialisation of taste.'
The trend for techno music is, a few clubs in New York notwithstanding, virtually ignored west of Cork. It is almost impossible for British record companies to promote techno acts in the US, because American commercial radio is so niche-oriented along racial and demographic lines that no one knows where to place it. And without airplay there are no sales.
Equally, the dominant styles in America - rap and country - do not sell particularly well here: last year Doris Day sold more records in Britain than any American rap act; the best-selling album in the States this week is by John Michael Montgomery. Who?
Meanwhile in Europe, a market traditionally gorged on British and American staples, local acts are accounting for a bigger share of their home turf. Musicians no longer feel obliged to sing in English. In Germany, the growing mood of nationalism is manifested in German lyrics being more prominent in the charts. And it is no longer laughable for Europeans to export their talents to Britain: Dutch, Swedes and Icelanders frequently infiltrate our Top 20, calling themselves 2 Unlimited, Ace of Base or Bjrk and proving as adept with computers as British recording artists.
Developing countries with no history of infatuation with the English language - Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan - are now among the top 15 most valuable markets. Even the Japanese, the second biggest record market in the world and traditional supporters of anything past-it and British, are discovering other voices.
Not much in the 1994 Brit Awards suggested that the trends are likely to be reversed. The Stereo MCs, Dinah Carroll and Take That were the most insular Brits winners, in terms of world sales, in the event's history.
Pop music is a volatile business. Maybe next year it will be different. Perhaps this trio are the ones to lead a new American invasion. Their efforts have met with little success so far. But then in 1963 no one over there had bought a record by the Beatles.
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