LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The biggest stars of the music world are gathering in Los Angeles for Sunday's Grammy Awards, while the business slides deeper into the abyss.
Every day brings more bad news for the $21 billion (10 billion pound) industry, which cannot work out how to get fans to pay $18 for a CD instead of stealing music from the Web.
Just this week, Grammy-winning jazz singer Norah Jones' much-anticipated new album opened at No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts, but its sales were less than half those of its predecessor three years ago.
Warner Music Group Corp. -- home of Madonna and James Blunt -- reported a worse-than-expected 74 percent slide in first quarter profits. And EMI Group Plc., home of Coldplay and Robbie Williams, laid off a number of U.S. staffers.
Still, don't expect the bad tidings to infect the Grammys, which begin at 8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT Monday) at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles.
"It's not really the time to say, 'We don't know how to sell albums anymore. Please help us,'" said Craig Marks, editor in chief at music magazine Blender.
This year, the leading nominees are R&B singer Mary J. Blige with eight nominations and California rock band the Red Hot Chili Peppers with six.
Predicting the winners in any of the 108 categories is always a risky task. Last year everyone expected eight-time nominee Mariah Carey to be the belle of the ball on the strength of her successful comeback album. She won three prizes.
Blige was a surprise omission from the coveted album of the year race, where the Chili Peppers will compete against country trio the Dixie Chicks, pop duo Gnarls Barkley, rock crooner John Mayer and pop star Justin Timberlake.
The Dixie Chicks, with five nominations, are favorites for "Taking the Long Way," their first studio album since singer Natalie Maines stirred up a hornet's nest by criticizing President George W. Bush in 2003. The album's sales disappointed.
"For reasons having nothing to do with music, it never really got a chance to be all that it could be," said Rick Rubin, the album's producer.
A FIRST FOR NEIL YOUNG?
The 11,000-plus industry professionals who vote on the Grammys are supposed to favour artistry over sales. And the Chicks' album was hailed by critics for its sassy tone -- as summed up by the record and song of the year nominee "Not Ready to Make Nice" -- and musical adventurousness.
If Grammy voters are feeling particularly political, they could also honour Neil Young for his anti-Bush album "Living With War," which yielded three rock nominations. The Canadian singer/songwriter, who has never won a Grammy, recorded his state-of-the-union album in six days last year and quickly uploaded the songs to his Web site.
"No one has come out like him, or like Arlo Guthrie, and written about America and what it means to be an American," said Tom Araya, vocalist with hard rock band Slayer.
His band is nominated in the metal category for "Eyes of the Insane," a tune inspired by the true story of an Iraq war soldier who committed suicide shortly before he was due to return home.
In the closely watched race for best new artist, Blender's Marks predicted 27-year-old English singer/songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae would take the prize on the strength of her jazz-influenced self-titled debut album.
"She's a 'sophisticated' singer and artist, and that's the kind of artist the Grammys like to think of themselves as promoting," he said.
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