Marketing: Driven up a country road: The music industry hopes a US tradition will make it big in Europe, writes Roger Trapp

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The Independent Online
IF EVER anything had an image problem in Britain, it was country music. Widely derided as unsophisticated hillbilly nonsense performed by men in big hats and women with big hair, it has largely failed to ignite the popular imagination.

That could be about to change. This week, the Nashville-based Country Music Association is making its biggest effort yet to raise the profile of its product.

In a rare venture outside North America, it is flying many of its top officials to London for a seminar at the Hotel Inter- Continental, Hyde Park Corner, on Wednesday. The idea is to tell British record executives, retailers, promoters and specialist media about the European potential for country music.

Until recently, such an event would have been unlikely to generate much interest. But it follows the European launch of Country Music Television, a cable service that aims to do for the genre what MTV has done for rock and pop music.

Despite the comparatively low penetration of cable in the UK, the service has attracted about 300,000 subscribers since its introduction on 1 November. It is proving even more popular in continental Europe.

All of this pales beside the situation in the US, where the service owned by Gaylord Entertainment Company and Group W Satellite Communications is seen in 17 million households.

But country is, after all, American and is featured on countless specialist radio stations across the country. The success of acts such as Garth Brooks - who outsold Madonna, Michael Jackson and REM last year - helped the genre account for more than a tenth of US record sales. Surely it could not happen here.

Martin Satterthwaite, European operations director of the Country Music Association, does not expect to reach those dizzy heights, but he sees signs of a trend that will enable the music to shake off the country and western, cowboy tag.

Citing the enduring popularity of such rock performers as Eric Clapton and Phil Collins, he says there is perceived to be a gap in the market populated by over-35s who do not feel the record labels cater for them.

Country music's emphasis on good musicianship and wordy songs could find favour with this group, he believes.

CMA research suggests that country music is nearly twice as popular with adults as classical music, and three times as popular as jazz. There are already 175 country radio shows broadcast each week in 15 European countries. Mr Satterthwaite expects the current round of licence applications to give the UK its first specialist country station.

But he and others in the industry are looking to television to produce the quantum leap.

Joyce Taylor, chief executive of United Artists Programming, which is marketing CMT Europe, claims that the service is popular with families and women at home during the day, who are turned off by the traditional cable/satellite fare of sport and action films.

But it remains to be seen whether this interest will translate into increased sales.

Hitherto, only a fraction of the records produced in the US have been released in this country, and those that have appeared have achieved modest sales. Garth Brooks, for instance, has sold only about 20,000 albums here, despite his superstar status on the other side of the Atlantic.

But David Hughes, divisional managing director of Brooks's label, EMI, sees CMT as one of three factors that can provide the vital lift. The others are appearances on mainstream television and a visit by the artist. Though Brooks appeared on Channel 4 over Christmas, he has yet to tour here.

CMT was an 'important beginning', he said, adding that an appearance on the channel by Suzy Bogguss, one of his company's up-and-coming performers, had led to a request for an appearance on Wogan.

While it was as professionally produced as MTV and designed for a non-US audience, however, he said it would have limited impact until it gained a wider audience, preferably via satellite.

He suggested that the current popularity of Mary-Chapin Carpenter could be attributed to the three factors. But her record company, Sony - while welcoming CMT's arrival - has another explanation.

Brian Yates, marketing director for Sony's Columbia subsidiary, said she was a singer- songwriter whom the company was seeking to market as a 'cross-over' artist.

But it is mainstream success that makes a cross-over artist, and Mr Yates's remark suggests it is continuing ambivalence on the part of record companies towards country music - not lack of acceptance by listeners - that is holding the genre back.

(Photograph omitted)

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