Creative Industries: Music: The fight to stay top of the pops

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The Independent Online
Size of UK music industry: pounds 3.4bn

UK employment: 115,200

Forecast annual growth to 2007: around 5 per cent

HOSTED by Ben Elton, given added lustre by the Spice Girls bursting on stage in a mocked-up convertible, the Brits last week kicked off the awards season in confident style. The message was clear: the British music industry is a world-beater. It is probably the most self-confident of all the country's creative industries.

The UK is the fourth largest national music market, account-ing for 7 per cent of global retail sales of $40.2bn (pounds 25bn) in 1997. More striking is the fact that UK artists are responsible for a disproportionately high percentage - around 18 per cent - of music sales around the world.

In contrast with other creative industries, the UK boasts a major world player. EMI/Virgin joins Polygram, Sony, Warner Music and BMG to make up the Big Five. Together they are responsible for over 70 per cent of album sales in the UK. The remainder is split between 600 independent record companies, many so small they make just one or two releases a year.

The UK music industry benefits from its history. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other bands were in at the creation of modern pop music and have continued to shape it ever since. The benefits to the UK economy are clear: apart from full-time employment of 115,000, probably another 45,000 musicians, roadies, and engineers work part-time.

Total exports of British music in 1993 (the last year for which full figures are available) were pounds 1.2bn, double imports. The trade surplus of pounds 571m is comparable with the steel industry's. Few other industries produce significantly greater contributions to the balance of payments.

The challenge facing the UK music industry is to sustain its high profile and grow its share of the world market. One possible catalyst is the internet. On the web, musicians performing in bedrooms in Cheam and Doncaster could gain access to the global music market. The Artist Formerly Known as Prince is already selling records and videos over the Net, sidestepping his record label.

But the internet is a threat as well. It and other new distribution technologies make piracy easier. In the past, fans bought bootleg cassettes of Paul Simon's Graceland in London tube stations. Soon it will be possible to buy illegally copied music in myriad forms.

Piracy, worth an estimated pounds 19m in annual sales, highlights the larger problem of maintaining intellectual copyright and protecting territorial publishing rights. Tackling this problem is already a priority of Chris Smith's Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

The fight will be complex. Regulations on copyright are still not uniform across Europe. Large parts of the world simply ignore international law. Independent labels, a key source for developing new talent, are particularly vulnerable. The huge domestic and global scale of the Big Five gives them a head start in exploiting new distribution mechanisms. The government could make a priority of supporting smaller industry players.

It could also help establish a support infrastructure for the industry. For example, it could help set up the equivalent of Pact (the Producers Alliance of Cinema and Television) for musicians. Young players, new bands and their managers could all benefit from business, marketing and legal advice in setting up new publishing and record companies.