Pop covers the cracks with tinsel

Do they know it's Christmas? The record companies certainly do, and with sales in decline the seasonal battle is fierce

NEXT WEEK some of the most annoyingly catchy, sentimental and downright ridiculous tunes of the year will join the scramble for that essential part of the British Yuletide, the Christmas No 1 spot. The rest of rock and pop will take a back seat as TV stars invade the Top Of The Pops studio and teen acts come over all misty-eyed in a bid to tug at hearts and purse strings.

The usual array of slushy ballads, gimmicky jingles and rabble-rousing anthems contend for the top slot in 1998. After two Christmas No 1s in succession, the Spice Girls are going for a hat-trick with "Goodbye". They face stiff competition from popular teen bands B*Witched, All Saints and Boyzone. Cliff Richard's "Bita Mia" and a duet between Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston will be vying for older listeners' attention, while novelty records include the already notorious "Naughty Christmas (Goblin In The Office)", the Christmas party send-up by Fat Les (the comedian Keith Allen), with which he hopes to repeat the success of his World Cup song "Vindaloo". And after the attempt to cash in last year by Maureen from Driving School, another docusoap star, Jane McDonald of The Cruise, follows up her No 1 debut album with a Christmas single.

But the range of these seasonal offerings, and the intensity of competition, is not so much the mark of a booming record industry as an attempt to halt the trend of declining sales. The Christmas season accounts for 40 per cent of industry profits, and it could certainly do with them. It's no surprise, perhaps, that the charity single is a notable absentee this year. Record companies see themselves as the ones in need of help.

Six months ago, Oasis boss and Creation records founder Alan McGee announced a recession in the music industry in a New Musical Express article called "the Great Rock and Roll Dwindle". He expressed concern at sales inertia and the lack of new talent, claiming, "if anyone is telling you different, they're liars".

This year's figures certainly support McGee's case. Recent sales trends reveal top bands shooting to early prominence, then fading quickly after their first album. Sales have been so flat that many records have topped the charts by selling a fraction of the number normally required to achieve success. Pulp's album This Is Hardcore made it to No 1 with sales of just 30,000 in the first week, while Catatonia's International Velvet knocked Pulp off the top with just 32,000 sales. By contrast, Oasis's 1997 album Be Here Now sold 700,000 copies within three days.

With music lovers clamouring for the next Oasis, picking hits for an international market is a particularly onerous task. The music press has long blamed unimaginative record companies who have been signing Oasis imitators in the hope of repeating that success. Paradoxically, one of the decade's biggest retail successes has been in Oasis's idols, the Beatles. The re-released Beatles Anthology has shifted more than 26 million units worldwide since its release in 1995, a total that even the Spice Girls couldn't hope to match. The strong presence in the album chart of "Best Of..." releases by older acts - Duran Duran and Culture Club, for example - is further evidence of the current trough in creativity.

After a year of poor sales and industry downsizing, record companies are now showing more interest in the immediate money-spinners, particularly teen acts and low-cost compilation albums, rather than nurturing new acts for the future.

"The Christmas Top 10 will be full of teen bands," predicts Gennaro Castaldo, PR manager of HMV. "Singles are used by the music business as a marketing tool rather than a source of immediate revenue. You will notice that most of the girl and boy bands on the Christmas list have first albums to promote. It was the release of Robbie Williams's single "Angel" last year that saved his album Life Thru A Lens." "I think a lot of record companies have misread the market in teen bands," warns Peter Price, managing director of Coalition records. "Christmas is a vital time in music but the cost of marketing these bands is phenomenal. One hit single is not going to save a floundering company. Forget B*Witched and Billie. The money is in acts with a longer history such as George Michael. They will be lining Sainsbury's shelves this Christmas."

Technological developments such as the recordable compact disc and music distributed over the internet, which make pirating much easier, are cutting into music industry profits. The growing distribution of unreleased music on the internet last week prompted record companies Sony, Warner, EMI and Universal to team up with IBM in a digital distribution system called the Madison Project, scheduled to start next year. The system will enable consumers to download digital recordings while record companies monitor sales.

The industry has also suffered harsh cost-cutting programmes. A&M records, a subsidiary of PolyGram, was closed down earlier this year, while the Canadian group Seagram are in the process of taking over PolyGram records.

Last week's speculation that industry giants EMI are to be taken over continues after a warning from the company that persisting economic problems in its main markets, including South-east Asia and Latin America, will seriously damage profits.

Sales have also slowed in Europe, usually a lucrative market for British acts. EMI has denied reports that senior officials from the company had met Rupert Murdoch's son to discuss the possibility of News Corp investing in the troubled record label. "As far as we're concerned, EMI is not looking for a buyer, though if someone makes a good offer we will have to take it into consideration," insists Jason Crisp, head of EMI's corporate affairs. "The UK market is looking good for November and the US market is flourishing. Things could be a lot worse."

Despite analysts' predictions of a slump for the latter part of 1998, statistics from the British Phonographic Society show that sales are improving in the UK, with figures rising for the year's final quarter. "People have lost jobs and there has been a certain amount of rationalisation within the industry," said a BPI spokesperson. "But there is still a lot of diverse music available and the Christmas market looks good. November has been a good month for music."

And while this year as a whole does not bode well, those in the industry can remember similar gloomy periods. "These things are cyclical," assures Castaldo. "There was a lull in the early Nineties, then Britpop exploded and the industry became more lucrative than ever."

In the meantime, the performance of this year's festive offerings may have long-term implications for musical trends. All we can hope for is a improvement in standards before the rush begins for the Millennium No 1.

CHRISTMAS NO.1 CONTENDERS FOR 1998

ARTIST TITLE RELEASED ODDS

The Spice Girls Goodbye 14 December 4-9

Jane McDonald Cruise Into Christmas 14 December 9-2

The Chef (Isaac Hayes) Salty Chocolate Balls 14 December 12-1

Alberta Yo Yo Baby 14 December 14-1

B*Witched To You I Belong 7 December 16-1

Slade vs Flush Merry Christmas Everyone 14 December 16-1

Fat Les Naughty Christmas 7 December 25-1

(Goblin In The Office)

Boyzone I Love The Way You Love Me 23 November 25-1

Mariah Carey/ When You Believe 7 December 25-1 Whitney Houston

Cliff Richard Bita Mia 7 December 25-1

Billie She Wants You 7 December 25-1

Aqua Good Morning Sunshine 14 December 33-1

All Saints War of Nerve 23 November 50-1

Robbie Williams No Regrets Tomorrow 50-1

Bryan Adams feat Mel C When You're Gone Tomorrow 60-1

Celine Dion feat. R Kelly I'm Your Angel 16 November 80-1

Desmond Lynam Rudyard Kipling's If 7 December 150-1

Odds supplied by William Hill

25 YEARS OF CHRISTMAS NO. 1S

1973: Slade - Merry Xmas Everybody

1974: Mud - Lonely This Christmas

1975: Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody

1976: Johnny Mathis - When A Child Is Born

1977: Wings - Mull Of Kintyre

1978: Boney M - Mary's Boy Child

1979: Pink Floyd - Another Brick In The Wall

1980: St Winifred's School Choir - There's No One Quite Like Grandma

1981: Human League - Don't You Want Me

1982: Renee and Renato - Save Your Love

1983: Flying Pickets - Only You

1984: Band Aid - Do They Know It's Christmas?

1985: Shakin' Stevens - Merry Christmas Everyone

1986: Jackie Wilson - Reet Petite

1987: Pet Shop Boys - Always On My Mind

1988: Cliff Richard - Mistletoe And Wine

1989: Band Aid II - Do They Know It's Christmas?

1990: Cliff Richard - Saviour's Day

1991: Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody

1992: Whitney Houston - I Will Always Love You

1993: Mr Blobby - Mr Blobby

1994: East 17 - Stay Another Day

1995: Michael Jackson - Earth Song

1996: Spice Girls - 2 Become 1

1997: Spice Girls - Too Much

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