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Sounding Off: Transatlantic Appeal

Dave Stewart By Dave Stewart

From triumphant moptops to dismal flops: charting the spectacular fall from grace of British music in the US.

The announcement in May that, for the first time in almost 40 years, there were no UK singles in the American Top 100 came as a shock. Since our loveable moptops took the US by storm (can it really be 10 years since Ride were big over there?), it has been assumed that British acts automatically had transatlantic appeal. However, it now appears that in the USA, UK music can't even command the status of a niche market. How could this come to pass? Rejection hurts, but rather than sulking, it might be instructive to look at the reasons behind the big heave-ho.

Sounding Off August 2002: Dave Stewart.Reason number one: musical identity. We should start by asking what 'UK music' means. Is it best typified by Billy Bragg or Fatboy Slim? Dido or Elton John? A1 or Mis-teeq? Martine McCutcheon or The Afro Celt Sound System? Gorillaz or S Club Juniors? Faithless or Oasis? Heartless Crew, DJ Neutrino or MC Chickaboo? Or even Craig David and Ozzy Osbourne? (Oddly, this eccentric double act are currently the UK's sole representatives in the American albums chart.) The obvious answer is that UK music is the sum of all of these parts, a diverse aggregation of styles with different audiences. Clearly there is no longer a single, distinctive, easily identifiable 'British sound' — in fact, if there's one unifying factor, it's that British singers, almost regardless of genre, sing with American accents!

Reason number two: grow your own. In the 1980s, the Japanese charts were full of foreign artists. Now they've vanished, replaced by homegrown 'J-Pop' acts who sing in a language everyone can understand (and no, it's not English). The Japanese excel at copying, and now they've perfected their own formula, they no longer need the original. In the same way, American record companies find it expedient to develop their own talent rather than buying it in from overseas.

Reason number three: originality. When British music was dominant worldwide, groups like The Who and The Beatles were free to indulge their artistic imaginations and made distinctive original records. Nowadays, our artists aren't so free. Musical decisions are made at a corporate level by committees of salaried 30- and 40-somethings whose eyes are fixed on the charts. In this climate, achieving originality is near-impossible, since anything that sounds a little different from the norm runs the risk of rejection on precisely those grounds. The finished product may sound proficient, but has nothing to say artistically — not a great recipe for enduring global success.

Reason number four: higher expectations. Remember the Milli Vanilli scandal? America rose in moral outrage, but here, people just shrugged. With its broken trains, failing schools and inadequate hospitals, Britain is probably past caring whether a couple of pop stars can or can't sing. Americans were less forgiving, proclaiming their revulsion so vehemently that one of the poor Vanillis later committed suicide.

Reason number five: dumb marketing. We are told repeatedly that no-one buys singles any more, but UK record companies, rather than investing in durable album acts, have stuck their collective heads in the sand (or an even darker, altogether smellier place) and continued to sign way too many confected, image-led, here-today-gone-tomorrow artists whose ambitions outweigh their musical talents. This perverse policy has resulted in a disproportionate parade of UK one-hit wonders.

One US commentator recently said "American record buyers are keen on acts who will stick around, sing live and write their own songs." On the BBC's web site, Sarah (13) of Aldershot writes: "I like English music, but American music like Sum 41, Blink 182 and Pink appeals to me more because they write their own stuff and play instruments." To ignore these simple principles is to forget what made UK music compelling listening in the first place.

Interestingly, the British record industry has reacted to the current crisis by producing a report urging the Government to step in and halt the slump. In other words, the people who caused the problem now expect others to bail them out — such qualities of leadership don't exactly inspire confidence.

Finally, reason number six: technology. The latest advances are great, but there's a down side: technological processes often waste time, and sometimes push us into working in isolation. We need to get out more, find musical collaborators, perform live and pursue the nebulous, mystical, subversive qualities that make music so glorious: creativity, passion, soul, insight and vision. These cannot be bought from a catalogue, but with hard work and dedication, they can occasionally be spirited into existence.

We, the creators of music, must stand by our artistic principles and produce music we can be proud of. Fame and fortune may not be forthcoming, but at least we'll end up with something we enjoy listening to. In the end, if the American population rejects your songs as firmly as it has the rest of the UK's musical output, don't despair. It could be they're simply bonkers — after all, they elected George Bush president (twice).

About The Author

Dave Stewart is a UK keyboardist/composer who makes 'pop music for grown-ups' with singer Barbara Gaskin. He has written for SOS (while 'resting' between engagements) longer than any of us care to remember.

Published August 2002