Leading article: Sounds of success


The Brit awards were handed out last night, with the customary razzle-dazzle and a commendable, if unsurprising, list of recipients. As an annual event, this is one that sits uncomfortably with pop music's rebellious heritage. This year, though, there was something to celebrate. While those on the receiving end of redundancies and restructurings at the major labels might demur, for the more progressive parts of the industry, these are heady times.

It is not simply that those manufactured groups of pretty boys and girls that clogged the charts for so long have been pushed aside by young men (sadly, it is mainly men) wielding guitars and attitude. It is that there has been an air of excitement building over the past two years, and that innovative bands are becoming household names even in households that don't know their music. For all the doom-laden forecasts, the statistics tell a refreshingly good story. British artists sold a record 62.4 million albums last year, accounting for half of all album sales, the highest share since 1998. UK album sales rose from 42.4 per cent of the market in 2004 to 49.4 per cent, while American artists' sales fell from 41.7 per cent to 37.7 per cent.

And behind these bald figures is a more interesting story of a shift in power in the music industry, with the creators of music and their allies seizing the upper hand. Independent British record labels last year generated nearly a quarter of the UK music market, with sales of more than £500m in mainstream retailing alone. These labels are reinvigorating the music scene, their artists using bedrooms and garages to make records and the internet to build their fan bases. The world wide web and word of mouth are replacing million-pound marketing strategies, and this is shaking some of the conservatism out of an industry that had become sclerotic.

These young radicals defy the defensive stance of the industry establishment, even offering their music free on the web. And some older artists have also learnt to use the internet to remain in contact with their audiences. Major figures such as Mick Hucknall are now putting out their own records, while even minor luminaries such as John Otway use the web to harness small but dedicated bands of followers.

This power shift helps to explain the new vibrancy and confidence of the British music scene that so resonated at last night's awards. And, as with change in any art form, it mirrors broader shifts in society: an increasingly global outlook, a multicultural approach and, increasingly, greater cultural divergence from the US. As the winner of last night's Lifetime Achievement award once sang: "That's entertainment!"

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