Save our music pioneers

As the industry gears up for the annual Brit awards this week, Ian Burrell discovers that the financial future is bleak for many of our British trailblazers thanks to this country's inadequate copyright protection laws
Click to follow

His real name is Thomas Hicks. He had a bit of the cheeky chappy boy next door combined with a little of the new American teen attitude and he was Britain's first home-grown rock'n'roller.

But the man more commonly known as Tommy Steele, who topped the charts 50 years ago with "Singing the Blues", is facing a problem that could have him warbling with such melancholy that he might make Muddy Waters sound like a bubblegum popster. According to Peter Jamieson, the chairman of the British Phonographic Industry, the pioneers of this country's modern popular music culture are facing an imminent threat to their means of making money from the hits they made.

The problem does not relate to internet downloading; it goes back further than that to a decision made before the Second World War that British artists should only retain rights to their music for 50 years (unlike the 95-year rule in place in the US). This means that any entrepreneur will be free to burn a recording of Tommy's "Singing the Blues" (which reached No 1 in December 1956) and sell it on without contributing anything to Steele or his record company Decca. The same will apply to other British trailblazers such as Cliff Richard, Shirley Bassey and, before long, The Beatles.

Jamieson says the British music industry will be making a submission to the independent review of intellectual property rights which has been set up by Chancellor Gordon Brown and is being headed by Andrew Gowers, the former editor of the Financial Times. "We are going into the great British golden era of rock and pop and it would be sad to lose rights to this material to such things as offshore trading companies. It means anyone could duplicate Beatles recordings and sell them. They wouldn't pay The Beatles and if they are operating offshore they wouldn't even pay anything to UK plc," says Jamieson. "We should consider up to 95 years, which is what applies in the US, our biggest competitors for selling music in the global marketplace."

Jamieson has been fighting British music's corner for more than three years. He has an impressive vantage point from which to conduct his campaign, looking out across Westminster Bridge to the Houses of Parliament from a second-floor room in County Hall. "Isn't it fantastic? It must be one of the best offices in London, which helps for lobbying purposes," he says.

This week is one of the most important of the year for the marketing of British music: the week when the Brit awards take place. On Wednesday, 4,000 guests will sit down to a four-course meal while being entertained by 10 music acts and watching the presentation of 16 categories of award. The event will be shown on ITV the next evening and televised in 33 countries.

But Jamieson believes that the Brit brand is not being maximised. "In terms of global award shows, you would get brand recognition from the Grammys way, way in excess of the Brits," he admits. But how to expand the appeal of a brand that smacks of the insularity of a national rather than international event? The name, admits Jamieson, "makes it more difficult to market the show internationally". He points out, though, that the name Brit awards stands for British Record Industry Trust awards and is not intended to be a musical equivalent of the Golden Jubilee.

"People say to me 'Why have you got American music for the Brits?' but it is an award show that recognises excellence - not a patriotic shenanigan," he says. "We get very happy when, like this year, 75 per cent of the acts are British but they are there on merit."

So it is his intention to take this international event to a wider global audience. How he achieves this he is not entirely clear, except that he will look for "better television deals, trying to create international presence and awareness that is higher than currently".

It is a far cry from 1977, when the first Brit awards took place at Wembley Conference Centre, hosted by Michael Aspel and featuring Cliff performing "Miss You Nights". Jamieson, who was there, recalls: "It was quite small and I don't think we sought much publicity." That said, the television industry has changed so much that the event drew an audience of 11 million, compared to six million in 2004.

Despite the fall in TV audience, interest in the ceremony has "grown constantly", says Jamieson. "It has been gradually increasing its media coverage, transforming itself from an industry event to a national one. It's now bigger than Ben Hur."

The interest even extends to the list of nominations, which now has its own event, this year taking place at London's Riverside Studios with performances by the Kaiser Chiefs and KT Tunstall.

But as Jamieson grows the event he knows he has to retain sight of its roots. Unlike the Grammys, which is a theatre-based entertainment show, aimed largely at a television audience, the Brits is, first and foremost, a music industry bash.

Jamieson still smarts at the miscalculation of three years ago, when the Brit organisers decided to switch from the usual table and chairs format to an auditorium, into which guests were not able to take their drinks.

"There was a media frenzy about the boozeless Brits," says Jamieson. "It so much switched the attention away from the artists that we thought we must not give anyone an excuse not to write about the music again."

Jamieson is sitting at a black table adorned with flowers and lettering in the same British folk art that is used to decorate canal barges. Except the words on the table read "For tonight God is a DJ", a lyric by the dance act Faithless. The table is one of a series that were used at a previous Brits ceremony but the ravey sentiment seems a little incongruous, given that Jamieson is in his 50s and lives in Surrey with his wife Jane, a classical musician.

His music business credentials are not in doubt. He spent 20 years at EMI, rising to UK managing director, before moving to BMG and then becoming founding president of MTV Asia.

He is still worried at the threat the music industry faces from illegal downloading but is encouraged that the annual number of lawful downloads in Britain has risen from five million to 26.4 million in just 12 months. "We are getting the message across that there is a right and wrong way of doing things," he says.

He accepts that new bands, such as the Arctic Monkeys, have skilfully used the internet to drive legal sales of their debut album. But he points out: "I would say that in 10 years' time the Arctic Monkeys would be a little bit disappointed if all their records are available for free on the internet."