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Branson, Britney add flash to Midem

Midem kicked off with more flash than usual Saturday with a touch of Britneymania, a surprise appearance from Virgin mogul Richard Branson and the NRJ awards, France’s answer to the Grammys.

Pop icon Britney Spears, braving the chill at the 36th installment of the annual music market in a skimpy floral dress, was on hand to promote her upcoming feature film, “Crossroads,” scheduled for Valentine’s Day release in the United States, as well as her third album, “Britney,” already approaching 8 million units worldwide

At a packed Carlton hotel press conference, Spears expressed her hopes for her first foray onto the big screen, a road movie based on the 20-year-old singer’s own concept. Spears said she was not phased by the alleged laughter that greeted the picture at a critics’ screening in London, saying, “Everything the critics like I hate.”

Branson was in town to sing the praises of V2, the record label he set up after clearing the trading restrictions imposed on him following the sale of Virgin Records to EMI in the early ’90s.

Branson maintained V2 (Moby, Stereophonics) could be a big as Virgin within three years. When asked how realistic that was, Branson segued into a condemnation of EMI’s current restructuring, describing the ousting of former EMI Recorded Music head Ken Berry as a “dreadful mistake” and adding that “what’s going on at EMI-Virgin is that they’re shooting themselves in the foot. ”

Branson said he had received many phone calls from EMI artists unhappy with the changes and intimated that there could be an exodus of talent from the British music major.

Spears was the first act to perform at the NRJ awards, which went out live on TF1 from the Palais de Festival. She fared considerably better than veteran French singer-songwriter Jean-Jacques Goldman, who suffered the humiliation of dead air on national television after someone accidentally pulled the plug on the song he was miming.

The evening’s big winners were Brit songstress Dido, who took three NRJ awards, including international album, and Garou, whose three nods included best Francophone male. For oldtimers, the awards were eclipsed by a nimble performance from Mick Jagger singing his new single, “Visions of Paradise.”

Meanwhile, business at a noticeably contracted – no attendance figures will be made available until the end of the market – and highly security-conscious Midem began.

At Midemnet, the pre-market new-media conference, the revelation that ring tones – songs purchased through telco micro-payments for use as the ring on mobile phones – represented a $1.2 billion market last year and could be worth $1.5 billion this year, heartened the battered online music sector.

Sunday’s main news was that OD2, the B2B digital distributor co-founded by rock star Peter Gabriel, has struck deals to supply its services to four key players: Tiscali, Europe’s second largest ISP; MSN, in a U.K. portal agreement; Brit dance indie Ministry of Sound; and mobile phone company Orange.

Lastly, global record trade group IFPI released figures indicating that roughly two-thirds of albums selling platinum (1 million) or more in Europe in 2001 were from European artists. The star performers were the U.K.’s Robbie Williams and Italy’s Andrea Bocelli, who each sold a least a million of three different albums. Debut releases – such as Brit act Coldplay’s “Parachutes” – also fared well.

Over the six years studied, however, Canadian chanteuse Celine Dion emerged as Europe’s most popular act, achieving platinum 33 times during the period. Madonna was second with 17.

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