Profitability In The U.K.

While this summer has proved that the music industry in the U.S.A. is still struggling mightily, new figures from across the pond indicate that business in the U.K., if not booming, isn't looking nearly as wan.

"Flat is the new up" are the keywords from a report written by Will Page and Chris Carey for the organization PRS for Music. (Page, an economist, was one of the men tasked by Radiohead with tracking downloads of the digital release of its album In Rainbows.) That "flat" refers to sales of recorded music — a figure that held steady in 2009 at the equivalent of $2.2 billion. Even more surprising: according to the PRS report, spending on live music in Britain actually went up by 9.4 percent.

You'd think that any sign of good news would be cause for celebration, but two notable responses to the report have shown caution rather than optimism.

At Billboard.biz, Glenn Peoples zeroed in on the differences between the music industry in the U.K. and America. Brits spend more per year on recorded music ($24.54) than Americans do ($14.85). That gap is accountable entirely to physical sales — per person, consumers in the U.S. spend more on digital music than those in the U.K., and Peoples' article seemed to wonder if the marketplace in the U.K. could just be an echo of the U.S., on a delay of a few years.

Peoples asked Page if a transition to digital sales wouldn't eventually hurt the British market for physical sales the same way it has in America. Page's response was optimistic, citing "the cultural value of retail" in Britain. But while receipts for live music are up, Page did show concern that the growth can be chalked up to large acts charging ever more money while small clubs close.

Meanwhile, in the Guardian's music blog, writer Helienne Lindvall took an even more skeptical stance, listing key points from the PRS report and then explaining what the good news "really means." Record sales flat after years of decline? Pshaw, says Lindvall. Without outliers like Susan Boyle and Michael Jackson, the fall would have continued. Live revenues up nearly 10 percent? Too many factors (concessions, secondary ticket sales) come into play to determine how much money "goes to people and companies involved in the actual music industry." Besides, Lindvall says, many of the most successful live acts in the U.K. last year were, in fact, Americans who took the money back overseas (this might be beside the point of the PRS report, but for the sake of Britain's long national tradition of hand-wringing, I'll overlook it).

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