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Ready, steady, go!

Clutch of original artists poised to revive local, global music biz

LONDON — It’s shaping up to be a banner year for original music in the U.K. While Britain’s singles chart remains populated by the record industry’s manufactured acts, the nation’s album chart tells a different story, with strong sales for superior releases such as Coldplay’s second album, “A Rush of Blood to the Head,” and the exciting debuts of new artists such as acclaimed singer-rapper Ms. Dynamite and bands the Music and the Coral.

These types of original performers — that labels can mine for years — bode well for the industry, which has seen shrinking market share.

“If you look at youth culture at the moment you see kids wanting to get back to the real values of music,” says Colin Barlow, joint MD of Universal imprint Polydor.

While the likes of U.K. “Pop Idol” winner Will Young and latest girl group sensation Atomic Kitten have sold a lot of CDs, these manufactured acts tend to be short term.

“The cycle seems to be recurring whereby people are looking for original music played by real bands,” says Andy Taylor, chief exec of British indie record company Sanctuary. “We’re seeing the resurgence of the kind of music that helped build our long-term business.”

The development-to-return ratio can be very expensive for original comers, but once they become established brands they pay dividends for labels that handle them with care.

Certainly British music major EMI is a believer, having recently coughed up a reported £80 million ($125 million) to keep ex-boy band member-turned-solo artist Robbie Williams on its roster for an additional four years. Label also has particularly high expectations for Williams’ new album, “Escapology.”

This huge pact comes on the heels of EMI Recorded Music chairman and CEO Alain Levy’s vow to forego megadeals in the wake of having to pay Mariah Carey $31 million just to go away. EMI is understood to be gambling that it will finally break Williams in his hitherto most elusive market — the U.S.

Another star performer will likely be singer-songwriter David Gray, following up his breakthrough album “White Ladder” with the just-released, and top-notch, “A New Day at Midnight.” Gray boasts a more universal appeal than many of his countrymen, and should make further inroads in the American market.

Meanwhile, the man who who signed the Spice Girls, and former EMI and Virgin Records U.K. topper Paul Conroy is re-emerging with his own label, Adventure Records. First release, “I Didn’t Get Where I Am,” is from Chris Difford, one of the founding songwriters of Squeeze.

But for all its creativity, the U.K. music industry is in something of a crisis. The market now has fallen in step with the decline that’s plagued the global music market for the last couple of years. The first half of 2002 saw music sales in Britain slip 6% in value on the previous year. Some blame was assigned to the distractions of World Cup soccer and Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee celebrations in early summer, as well as increased home copying and competition from video-games.

But British record execs are bullish that new compilations from the Rolling Stones and U2, and other high-profile releases will stem the decline.

EMI, especially, hopes that the Williams CD and the Rolling Stones’ “Forty Licks,” which they’re releasing in conjunction with Universal Music, can shore up domestic market share. EMI reps roughly a third of the U.K. market, and as such is the British record industry’s bellwether.

It has, however, seen better days. The general downturn worldwide, weakness in the American market, failed mergers with first Warner Music and then BMG, have forced EMI to rethink, restructure and streamline, and still its stock price has taken a pounding. Clearly it will take a lot of time to regain investor confidence.

“EMI is showing more signs of life than a year ago but they’re not out of the woods yet,” says Rebecca Ulph, an analyst with Forrester Research.

So which way forward? It may be that the strength of the British music industry, at home and around the globe, will prove to be its diversity –a healthy disposable pop market, a “serious” music market and back catalogs.

Time will tell whether the likes of Coldplay, Ms. Dynamite and their contemporaries are harbingers of not only a revitalized local scene but a renewed music export business.

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