Page last updated at 17:00 GMT, Sunday, 2 May 2004 18:00 UK

Rock profits and boogie woogie blues

By James Melik
BBC World Service business reporter

Bill Haley and the Comets
Haley's backing group was the Saddle Men before changing its name to the Comets

Fifty years ago, the seed of a revolution was sown which proved to be the catalyst for a multi-billion dollar industry.

On 12 April 1954 an overweight "singing cowboy" called Bill Haley went into a studio in New York and recorded a more raucous version of (We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock than his previous country-flavoured attempt.

The song didn't make much impact until it was featured in the film Blackboard Jungle a year later - but soon afterwards it was topping charts all over the world and opening up a new genre of entertainment.

The music industry grew into a $40bn sector at its peak in 1996.

That figure has since fallen by almost 25%, bringing forth the question; Has the bubble of prolific profits finally burst?

Global phenomenon

An increasingly affluent post-war generation couldn't get enough of the new rebellious Rock 'n Roll and record companies were quick to cash in on the popularity of artists such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry.

Initially an American concept which spawned pale imitations in other parts of the world, the musical schism between the generations went truly global with the advent of the Beatles.

Young people had money to spend and record companies made sure that a large part of their income was spent on buying records.

Biggest selling albums of all time in the US: source
Eagles: Greatest Hits 28m
Michael Jackson: Thriller 26m
Pink Floyd: The Wall 23m
Led Zeppelin: IV 22m
Billy Joel: Greatest Hits 21m
Fleetwood Mac: Rumours 19m
AC/DC: Back In Black 19m
The Beatles: The Beatles 19m

The money men moved in, and people like Brian Epstein managed the Beatles to ensure they maximised their earning potential.

Instead of being an artefact that you picked up after hearing it being played on radio, records became marketable commodities just like soap powder and baked beans - and record companies kept up the pressure by devising new ways of promoting the product.

There was the introduction of the 45 rpm record, the EP, stereo recordings, picture discs, cassettes, and compact discs, whilst the launch of MTV in 1981 produced an upsurge in music videos which led ultimately, to the DVD.

This strategy led to the prominence of the album in the 1970s and some bands, such as Led Zeppelin, ignored the singles market completely.

Decline and fall

The industry was at its peak in 1996 with global sales in the region of $40bn and companies merged to become even bigger conglomerates on the world stage.

For a while it looked as though the money-spinning machine would continue to produce huge profits, but things started to go horribly wrong.

Popular music is no longer the concern of adolescents in the way it was in the 1960s and 1970s
Simon Warner, Senior Teaching Fellow Leeds University

The sales of singles declined and other forms of entertainment began to erode the record companies' stratospheric profits.

Furthermore, new technology enabled people to download music from the internet, therefore by-passing the need to actually purchase the record.

According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, global sales for 2003 were at their lowest ebb - generating just $32bn, a drop of over 7%.

Music CDs
You can now store an entire music collection on a hand-held gadget

During the last eight years, there has been a drop in global earnings of almost 25% - which record companies blame on massive counterfeiting and downloading music from the internet.

Are we therefore looking at the death throes of a once invincible industry?

Simon Warner, senior teaching fellow in pop music at Leeds University, thinks not:

"In a multi-media age at a time when the internet is booming and mobile phones are the main teen obsession, popular music is no longer the concern of adolescents in the way it was in the 1960s and 1970s," he said.

But he believes that the entertainment corporations and media businesses which dominate the industry, although reeling from the impact of illegal downloading, will have the ability to bounce back.

"In recent decades the industry has faced threats from cassette tapes, videos and computer games and they have always found a means to exploit the waves of technical change that feature in this sector," he adds.

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