Industry seeks formula to revive UK pop music: David Lister reports on a strategy designed to encourage new acts and stimulate sales

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S music industry is preparing major changes to the pop charts and the way pop music is marketed, as record companies attempt to do something about an unprecedented lack of new talent.

Tonight's Brit Awards at London's Alexandra Palace will be dominated by old faces, as the razzmatazz fails to disguise statistics showing that only three new acts featured in the top 100 best- selling albums last year and only 10 British albums appeared in the 100 best-sellers in America. Britain is now playing second fiddle in the industry in which it led the world for three decades.

In an exclusive interview, Paul Russell, who has just been made president of Sony Music for the whole of Europe, unveiled a strategy to encourage people to buy new music.

A key problem, he said, was the lack of music on television. Whereas in the Sixties and Seventies there were several pop shows a week, now there is only one main one. And MTV on satellite has very little UK penetration. The other problem, with the boom in dance music, is that records have very short chart life and buyers are bewildered by the rapidity with which new names come in and out of the charts.

That bewilderment causes them to turn to trusted talent. Six of the 12 UK artists in the 20 best- selling albums last year were greatest hits compilations, and two of the remaining six, Genesis and Simply Red, featured in the best 20 of the year before.

Mr Russell said that he would be instigating a meeting of record company bosses to discuss changing the way the singles charts are collated. The idea is that in future they will be done on the American Billboard model in which airplay counts in addition to selling records. This would ensure longer chart life for new bands. The record companies have joint ownership of the charts.

In addition, he revealed that the record companies would have talks with MTV to try to have at least parts of its output shown on terrestrial television as well as satellite and cable.

Mr Russell - who, as head of Sony UK for the last 10 years developed a roster of artists including George Michael, Sade and Terence Trent D'Arby, and extended the record company's interests into a share in Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Films and the new open air pop stadium at Milton Keynes - added that the restructuring of Sony to give it a European division was also a significant move for British music.

Henceforward, he said, Europe would be seen as a single market for new UK music. Records would be released in all the major European capitals, and new bands would play 600 to 700 seat concert venues throughout Europe. This was particularly important, he said, as the lack of smaller British venues (one of the best known, the Town and Country Club in north London, is threatened with closure) and the decline of pub and college circuits meant that UK audiences saw acts that had not properly honed their craft. Groups like The Beatles and Dire Straits played clubs and pubs for long periods before the large venues.

Mr Russell said that after the shared purchase of the Milton Keynes bowl, Sony was likely to start buying up venues in Europe to 'blood' new British groups.

The British public had temporarily lost interest in music, he said. 'It's possible that the present lack of successful new bands may be cyclical, or it may be a much bigger problem. But we can't afford to get to the 1994 Brits and find that no debut British album has been in the top 100 bestsellers of 1993.

'The speed of records in and out of the UK charts is something we can address. There are a number of ways in which you can change the mathematics. It's a numbers game, and taking airplay as a factor would change things considerably.

'The British attitude has always been egocentric. If it's a success in the UK, then by rights it should be a success everywhere else. We have grown to expect UK talent to be exportable, but of the five singles last year that had the most airplay over Europe only one, Elton John, was UK.'

Mr Russell, 48, who is one of a generation of music-loving showbusiness lawyers at the helm of the leading record companies, adds that the adrenalin, emotion and confidence that are essential to record companies are endangered by falling sales and lack of interest in music. 'There's nothing worse than an A and R man (record company talent scout) who lacks confidence. If they are not confident, then they won't take risks.'

(Photograph omitted)