Pop music: The real stars of '98? What they say we want is Michael, Celine and Garth

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Indy Lifestyle Online
If you've ever felt left out by the musical tastes of the Brit Awards or Radio 1's playlist, you are not alone. Mike Higgins and Jennifer Rodger on the great music industry stitch-up.

According to Paul Weller, "the public wants what the public gets." While this may be a little cynical, there seems to be no accounting for the British public's taste in pop music - quite literally. Between your local indie record shop and the largest Oxford Street music superstore, the question of what we like to listen to and why proves more elusive to pin down the harder one wrestles with it.

The upcoming Brit Awards are a case in point. The annual music biz shindig commands an enormous audience, both through TV coverage of the ceremony and frenzied media attention. But though it professes to recognise musical excellence, it pays to remember that both the ceremony and awards are essentially marketing tools. "My major problem has always been that it [the Brit Awards] is music industry awards voted for by the music industry and is therefore riddled with vested interest," says NME editor Steve Sutherland. The editor of Smash Hits, Gavin Reeve, agrees. "We get people ringing up asking why their bands didn't win anything at The Brits," he says. "Although the kids are very aware that they are more `grown-up' awards, a lot of them, for instance, love The Verve, but they don't class it as indie and find it bizarre that they are put into boxes.'

Floating listeners also feel the industry PR pinch when they turn on the radio. Radio 1's 25 current A-list singles feature only six from the UK Top 50, yet these few have already made their mark, sitting pretty in the Top 20. Would that the remainder were much more than languishing commercial chart duds. Prominent in Radio 1's playlist, for instance, is Peter Andre's "All Night, All Right," but the single is nowhere to be found in the Top 50. Like all singles played on Radio 1, "All Night, All Right" was first broadcast a couple of weeks before release, but has subsequently flopped (much like the album from which it came). Regular listeners hearing "All Night, All Right" played at least once every couple of hours could be forgiven for thinking that it's already a smash hit. One might also question whether artistic merit alone won Ian Brown's "Star" a coveted place on the A playlist or whether his previous incarnation as frontman for The Stone Roses had anything to do with it.

You can't even rely on that self-styled arbiter of the lad-in-the-street's tastes, Chris Evans, for a snapshot of the nation's pop tastes. Texas famously rode back to chart success on the back of Evans's patronage and his Channel 4 show TFI Friday has made a habit of repeatedly showcasing his favourite artists, such as Black Grape and Ocean Colour Scene. Consider this, however. Virgin Radio, in which Evans's Ginger Productions now has a controlling share, can only muster an audience a fraction of the UK's most popular national radio station (by total hours listened), that easy- listening warhorse, Radio 2. Broadcasting an undemanding mix of "light" tunes and, increasingly, mainstream pop (see playlist), cardigan boys and girls such as Michael Bolton and Celine Dion reach over 8.5 million listeners a week (three times as many listeners as Virgin Radio), who then stay tuned five times longer on average.

Citing Radio 2 though is, not surprisingly, less useful in gauging the extraordinary range of UK pop music tastes. This is where specialised knowledge becomes an important factor. The groaning shelves of your local newsagent bear witness to a vibrant music press, catering for a multitude of specialist tastes. Like the niche music radio stations, Kiss FM, Xfm or Choice, the various papers and magazines address specific audiences: Touch (soul), Straight No Chaser (jazz, funk), Muzik, DJ (dance). As such they are not chart-led and are able to pursue an eclectic editorial policy exemplified by the best single choice of Mark Sutherland, editor of the traditionally indie-oriented Melody Maker: All Saints' "Never Ever" (currently at No 4 in the charts). "When everyone else was talking about perfect pop," Sutherland declares, rising above the paper's usual guitar sound allegiances, "they went out and made some." Similarly, NME's Steve Sutherland nominated an unsigned artist, Oliver Darley, for best singer.

While it seems disingenuous of music editors to distance themselves from the music industry of which they are a part, their criticism of the current scene strikes a chord. "British music seems so over-blown and overrated, fuelled by self-importance," says Allan Jones from Uncut. "Despite the overblown praise for Radiohead, they just sound like Pink Floyd."

Niche music radio stations, on the other hand, such as Choice FM with its diet of rare groove and soul music, do an equally good job of reflecting tastes, even if only at grassroots level. In a position to respond more to their listeners' preferences, stations such as Choice, the Indie broadcasters XFM and dance music spinners Kiss FM aren't under the same pressure to order their play-lists according to a recording's chart potential and have proved that broadcasting a single genre can be successful. You need only tune in to Radio 1's Friday night dance shows to realise the influence of former pirate station Kiss FM.

Hand in hand with the growth of niche broadcasting has been the increasing numbers of specialist retailers. Again the success of dance music provides a model for the way in which British tastes are increasingly being catered for. Independent vendors have mushroomed the country over, selling the work of artists able to press up recordings within hours of production - a phenomenon the high-street chains have not been slow to pick up on. While the independents may not enjoy the competition, the likes of HMV and Virgin now offer superbly stocked dance, jazz and indie departments, manned by increasingly knowledgeable personnel.

Finding out what we really, really want really comes down to a question of how many different types of pop we really, really like. And it's not likely to get any easier either.

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