Sex, drugs and megabucks

Last night the music industry celebrated a good year with its wince-inducing telefest, the Brit Awards. Could we be on the verge of another UK pop invasion of the US? Giles Smith looks at a business worth as much in exports as steel

The crucial decision about the Brit Awards - the British record industry's annual dinner, prize-giving and general pat-on-the-back fest, held last night at Alexandra Palace in north London - was taken a couple of months ago. It related to the time the food would be served and the decision was: earlier than last year.

Because last year, the food didn't come until after the prize ceremony. By which time the assembled industry types had refreshed themselves thoroughly on empty stomachs, and important questions, such as who won Best Album and Best Single, had come to seem less urgent than the pressing matter of who finished off that bottle of best Chardonnay.

It's doubtful that these boozing measures will have induced new levels of sobriety last night - not this year of all years. The chances are most people turned up drunk already on their own success. Sales of pre-recorded music last year, it was recently announced, reached an all-time high; £900m was generated, a 15 per cent increase on 1993, reversing several years of annual decline (the music industry has been hit by the recession, like any other business). EMI, home of 18 of last night's Brits nominees, has reported profits in its record division up 20 per cent at £252m.

In addition, a study by British Invisibles published earlier this month showed that the record industry generated £1.15bn in exports last year - the bulk of it in royalties - and recorded a trade surplus of £571m. This means the music business made as big a contribution to Britain's exports last year as the steel industry.

What this doesn't mean is that British pop music currently rules the waves, or is swarming all over the American charts, the way it did with the invasion of the Beatles in the mid-Sixties, and again with Boy George and a flurry of New Romantic groups in the early Eighties. British artists presently account for 14.9 per cent of albums sold in America, down from a recent peak of 20 per cent.

Success on the American market is still regarded as the test of international stature. The success of the Beatles was global enough and influential enough on the music which followed to create a long-lasting sense that white pop had its home in Britain and that English was its first language. The New Romantics prospered because they seemed to be carrying something new that America had not generated for itself - a bright, big-sounding, radio-friendly pop. In between times, Britain has experienced long periods of dearth, broken by intermittent one-off successes, and the most recent shifts in musical taste have tended to leave Britain high and dry. Two of the biggest current musical fads are country and western and rap (Garth Brooks, the American country and western singer, sold five million albums in Britain last year) and neither of these are forms for which Britain could be said to have a natural, indigenous feel.

Even in Europe, where American and British acts have tended to dominate in the past, indigenous acts are accounting for a bigger share of their home markets. The obligation to sing in English is felt less and less. In Germany, the growing mood of nationalism means more German lyrics in the charts. And it is no longer out of the question for Europeans to export their songs to Britain: Dutch, Swedes and Icelanders (2 Unlimited, Ace of Base, Bjork) frequently infiltrate our Top 20. Developing countries in which the English language has never dominated - Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan, for example - are now among the top 15 most valuable pop music markets. Even the Japanese, the second biggest record market in the world, are looking beyond British and American acts, or looking closer to home.

Britain's recent indifferent global performance can in part be attributed to the fragmentation of pop culture more generally. Genres of pop music here and elsewhere have proliferated to the extent where no central musical culture can be easily shown to dominate - only a series of different musical cultures, operating in different social groupings. There are more forms of, for instance, dance music now than you could shake a stick at - house, techno, ambient, ambient-house, ambient-techno. There was an assumption in the early Eighties that MTV, the globally available pop video channel run from America, would homogenise the world's pop. Instead, MTV has found itself having to adapt rapidly to cope with the splintering pop market, breaking its programming into more specialised units to cover tastes in rock and rap and pop and dance, as they have been thrown in its path. There is a provincialisation of taste and fewer artists are able to establish themselves across the genres and become truly global.

Still, some pundits are bold enough to think the success of Seal and the Cranberries, who made it into the American Top 20 at the end of last year, may cue a landslide of new British breakthroughs - Blur, Oasis and Suede the top contenders - backing up a stock of British oldies who regularly do well in America (Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Elton John). The last dominant white rock movement - the chiefly mournful "grunge rock" as exemplified by Nirvana - came out of America. Blur's more upbeat pop can be heard as a direct riposte to the cheerlessness of grunge, making them a British act with a flag to bear once more.

The British record business has complained for many years now that, for an industry so vigorously industrious, it isn't taken seriously enough or given adequate credit outside its own walls. In this, it is to some extent infected by the nature of its business: at the end of what it does lies Top of the Pops and Radio 1 DJs and people jumping about in daft clothes. You could argue that any business which organises, as a kind of public, televised Annual General Meeting, a spectacular as unerringly wince-inducing as the Brit Awards deserves whatever it has coming to it. But given that we're talking about an industry whose import to export ratio currently outperforms pharmaceuticals and oil, perhaps it's time the jokes were toned down.

Indeed, only a business prepared to do large amounts of sober and unglamorous leg-work could have made itself as robust and flexible as the British music industry. When a sales slump hit in the mid-Eightiess, it was technology that came to the rescue - but also an inspired propaganda campaign. The compact disc was launched with dubious claims about its superiority to vinyl as a sound-carrier and with more convincing claims about its convenience as a portable and storable object. As a result, people happily went out and bought again on CD the recordings they already owned on vinyl, floating the music business through the worst of the recession. Nearly all consumer businesses are bent on getting people to buy things which they do not need. The record industry pulled off the extraordinary coup of getting people to buy something they didn't need which they already had.

The Eighties sent up other threats. It was argued that record sales would suffer a knock when children began spending their disposable income on Sonic the Hedgehog rather than Robbie from Take That. But as one music industry executive once put it, no one ever fell in love while playing a computer game. Last year's figures seem to imply that the industry has seen off this particular danger.

Other problems lie ahead, principally in the form of the Internet and the possibilities of electronic distribution for music. How do you keep your hands on the royalties in a market in which people are merrily downloading albums on to their home computers? It's easy to imagine a situation in which rampant piracy takes place against a background of tattered copyright laws. This is going to test the record industry's ingenuity to breaking point.

But you would probably back them to think of something. And in the meantime, Britain's music industry finds itself newly fit, capable and again in a position to take on the world - at least, once the hangovers have cleared.

The Top 20 albums of all time

The focus of the British media is fairly narrow when it comes to pop music. Those considered to be massive successes in the UK may make small impact on the global scene - and vice versa - as the head of the Billboard All-time Top 100 Albums reveals:

1. West Side Story

2. Thriller

Michael Jackson

3. South Pacific

4. Calypso Harry Belafonte

5. Rumours Fleetwood Mac

6. Saturday Night Fever

The Bee Gees

7. Purple Rain Prince

8. Blue Hawaii Elvis Presley

9. More of the Monkees

10. Synchronicity

The Police

11. Love Me or Leave Me

Doris Day

12. The Sound of Music

13. Days of Wine and Roses Andy Williams

14. My Fair Lady

15. Tapestry Carole King

16. Sgt Pepper's Lonely

Hearts Club Band

The Beatles

17. Business as Usual

Men at Work

18. At Large

The Kingston Trio

19. High Infidelity

REO Speedwagon

20. The Wall Pink Floyd

The figures, the most comprehensive available, are for the United States (where 56 per cent of the world's records are sold) from 1955 to 1987. Among the Top 100 are eight Beatles albums, but only two by the Rolling Stones. Elton John and Led Zeppelin feature with more prominence than they would in the UK.

Surprise omissions include Madonna and Phil Collins, though these would probably appear in updated lists. So would Dire Straits, who have sold more than 20 million copies of Brothers in Arms, and have, like Queen, kept control of copyright better than earlier British bands.

But the real money comes not from sales but airplay. Paul McCartney has made more from six million US plays of Yesterday than Take That, Blur and Oasis have made put together.

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