Robbie vs Craig: labels declare war in the stores

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The Independent Online

It is being billed as the biggest pre-Christmas album launch in the history of the British music industry.

As they struggle to reverse years of flagging sales, beleaguered record companies are pinning their hopes on a seasonal sales bonanza. The frantic scramble is on for chart-topping success with stars ranging from U2 to Robbie Williams competing for the coveted number one album spot.

Westlife, Craig David, Elton John and Shania Twain are among the other acts whose new discs are due to be released over the coming fortnight. Also on the release schedule are Mariah Carey, David Bowie, S Club and Bjork.

Major labels such as Universal and EMI hope a bumper yuletide will revive their fortunes, amid growing unease about the impact of internet piracy and the spiralling costs of contracts for their biggest stars.

However, industry pundits predict that the splurge of releases could amount to overkill, with dozens of titles selling a fraction of the numbers they would expect to shift at any other time.

While it is customary for there to be one or two "super Monday" release dates in the weeks running up to Christmas, this year is exceptional.

Next week alone sees the arrival of the latest volume of U2's greatest hits, along with singles collections by Westlife and Elton John, and the long-awaited second album by R'n'B prodigy Craig David.

A week later comes Escapology, the annual pre-Christmas crowd-pleaser by Robbie Williams, whose five-million-selling cover album Swing When You're Winning came out almost a year ago to the day. As ever, Williams is expected to go straight in at number one. But this time he is unlikely to reach the top spot without a struggle.

Also out on 18 November are the much-anticipated posthumous album by George Harrison and Up, the latest release by US rock diva Shania Twain, whose last LP became Universal Music's biggest-selling album of all time.

Industry pundits stress that where this year differs from previous ones is the presence of so many original studio albums among the usual plethora of greatest-hits compilations. Neither is the burst of releases confined to conventional pop. Russell Watson, Andrea Bocelli and classical pin-ups Bond all have new albums out over the next two weeks.

The major labels are crowing about their release schedules. A spokeswoman for Universal pointed out that, after last year's nadir, over-the-counter album sales have risen in the UK in the past 12 months – bucking the global trend. As up to 40 per cent of album sales take place in the pre-Christmas period, the company expects its profits to be even more buoyant by the end of the year.

Jorgen Larsen, chairman and chief executive of Universal Music International, whose artists include U2, Shaggy, Bon Jovi, Carey and Twain, boasted: "This is certainly the strongest fourth-quarter schedule in our company's history, and probably the strongest any record company has ever offered for this time of the year."

EMI is equally bullish, confidently predicting that Williams will match his success last year by beating all rivals to the Christmas number one spot.

However, Paul Williams, news editor of the industry bible Music Week, says the huge variety of records being issued by competing labels could prove self-defeating.

"There is a danger of overkill," he said. "One problem is that there's often almost too many big albums released in one go, and if you're an average punter you only have so much money to spend at any one time.

"There is a risk that potentially major albums can end up falling by the wayside."

Though not as perilous as the singles market, global album sales have been falling steadily since the mid-Nineties. In the past year, they have dropped by more than 6 per cent, though Britain has seen a 3 per cent rise in sales.