It’s been another tumultuous year for the U.K. music business. Some issues were hangovers from 2020 – the seemingly endless COVID crisis and the related ongoing live-sector meltdown – but there were also plenty of new angles to get to grips with. So, as the industry cancels its holiday parties (thanks Omicron!) and dreams of a Christmas bonus to rival Sir Lucian Grainge’s post-IPO payday, Brit Beat counts down – in time-honored reverse order – the stories that rocked teacups across the U.K. in 2021…
10. LIVESTREAMS LET OFF STEAM
The U.K.’s venues remained closed until July 19, but livestreams didn’t exactly capitalize on the absence of the real thing.
Glastonbury’s inaugural online event was marred by extensive technical issues, while collecting society PRS for Music prompted a backlash from artists, managers and promoters with its renewed plans for a livestream tariff. It had already been forced to rethink its plans once, but the May announcement of a revised 10% tariff (actually higher than the 8% starting point for its original sliding scale plan) provoked further anger.
The Music Managers Forum and Featured Artists Coalition described it as “unjustifiable”. Seven months on, the tariff remains unchanged, and MMF CEO Annabella Coldrick is still unhappy.
“That rate effectively means that, for some artists, it doesn’t make sense to continue,” she tells Variety. “It’s almost like killing the goose that laid the golden egg – over the summer and into the autumn we haven’t seen big livestreams, because people are back doing gigs.”
A PRS spokesperson says it has issued over 350 such licenses since its launch in February, “most” before July 19. PRS is unable to provide figures for the amount collected so far as accounts are still being audited, but the society is “pleased with the popularity of the license.” The real test of that “popularity,” however, will come if the Omicron surge prompts a revival of the format in the coming weeks. With many January tours already being canceled – and minimal government support for the live sector despite flatlining attendance and revenues as fans stay away – those wanting to play may have no alternative but to pay up…
9. BRITS RELOADED
The 2020 BRIT Awards were the industry’s first event back after lockdown, with a reduced-capacity ceremony taking place in May.
But it was the 2022 edition that really hit the headlines, with its decision to drop gendered categories in favour of single (British) Artist of the Year and International Artist of the Year gongs.
Piers Morgan, Queen’s Brian May and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries were amongst those to criticize the move (although the industry approved), but when the nominations emerged this month, female artists held their own in those categories, with two out of five nominations for British Artist, and four out of five in the International category.
In total, 18 female acts were nominated for awards – the most since 2010, but still outnumbered by the 48 male artists to make the list. Organizers will be banking on Adele winning big to help redress that balance in February.
8. THE ARTISTS’ REVOLT
The Department for Digital Culture, Media & Sport’s inquiry into music streaming – of which more later – may have heard some unsubstantiated claims of artists being too scared to speak out against the music industry, but plenty of unhappy stars found their voice this year.
First, rising singer Raye called out Polydor on social media, claiming the Universal label had refused to let her release an album, despite signing her to a four-record deal in 2014. “I’m done being a polite pop star,” she fumed. Polydor said it was “saddened” by the claims, and within weeks, they’d parted company, leaving Raye free to pursue a career as an independent artist.
Then in November, electronic artist Four Tet said his independent label Domino had removed three of his albums from streaming services in an on-going dispute over royalties. Domino responded that it was “saddened” (clearly the go-to word for label responses in these situations) at their removal but said it was a “necessary consequence” of Four Tet’s legal action.
After a preliminary hearing in which few punches were pulled, the dispute will go to a full trial in early 2022. Disgruntled artists and nervous label bosses everywhere will be watching.
7. EVER GET THE FEELING YOU’VE BEEN CHEATED?
Mind you, artists are also pretty good at falling out with each other. One of the most compelling sights of the summer was the Sex Pistols – once the scourge of the British establishment with their calls for “Anarchy in the U.K.” – tearing strips off each other in a court case over the use of the band’s music in Danny Boyle’s upcoming biopic series, “Pistol.”
Singer John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, tried to block the project, claiming each member had the right to veto such uses. But guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook challenged that in court, and won.
Lydon subsequently denounced his ex-bandmates as “evil” and said he faced “financial ruin” as a result of the verdict. Normally, that might make reforming the band a consideration but, in this case, you suspect the role of lead singer in the Pistols will remain (pretty) vacant.
6. YOU’VE BEEN MERCKED
Even in a febrile market for publishing and recording buyouts, Merck Mercuriadis’ Hipgnosis Songs Fund continued to raise the temperature more than anyone else.
The U.K.-based company hit new heights on the London Stock Exchange in November, with a market cap in excess of $2 billion. And it sealed a deal with Blackstone to set up a new $1 billion private fund to acquire music rights.
Whatever they snap up next, it will join Hipgnosis stakes in catalogs from the likes of Neil Young, Lindsey Buckingham, Shakira and Steve Winwood. According to its recently issued interim report, it bought the rights to over 1,300 tracks between April 1 and September 30 at a cost of around $260 million.
But, with the traditional publishers who once turned up their noses at Hipgnosis’ business model deciding that, if they can’t beat them, they should definitely join them in buying up rights, the report says Hipgnosis will continue to focus “on managing the iconic songs we have acquired over the past three-and-a-half years.” Meanwhile, all eyes will be on whether Merck will still be able to make his mark in 2022.
5. SLOW HAND, FAST MOUTH
Much remains unknown about the long-term effects of COVID-19, but the short-term impact on the attitudes of several generations of U.K. musicians seems pretty clear.
While the likes of Ian Brown and Richard Ashcroft refused to play government test events or festivals where vaccination was mandatory for audience members, and Van Morrison released a string of anti-lockdown anthems, it was Eric Clapton who really went deep into conspiracy-theory territory.
Long a controversial figure in the U.K. – Clapton’s onstage anti-immigration rant in 1976, which resurfaced recently, led to the formation of Rock Against Racism – the guitarist admits his anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown stance has lost him friends and fans (he claimed the shot affected his hands so badly he feared he would never play again). How it will hit his career remains to be seen.
4. AWAL DEAL GOES AWOL
When Sony Music Entertainment agreed to acquire AWAL and Kobalt Neighbouring Rights from Kobalt for $430 million in February, few in the industry batted an eyelid. But the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) felt differently, referring the acquisition to an in-depth investigation in September over fears it could reduce competition.
CMA sources tell Variety that it will report its provisional findings in January, with the statutory deadline for its decision falling on March 17. Pan-European indies trade body IMPALA has already registered its opposition to the deal.
It will be a busy 2022 for the CMA, which is also charged with conducting a market study into the music streaming sector. It is currently carrying out work to decide the final scope of that study – something that will be crucial to the on-going debate between labels and #FixStreaming campaigners – with more details expected in the New Year.
3. THE B WORD
Until the summer, fears on how the U.K. leaving the European Union would affect touring on the Continent were largely abstract, as Britain’s army of artists were barely allowed to leave the house, never mind the country.
Since live music tentatively returned, however, most people’s worst fears have been realized, as anyone wanting to play live on the other side of the English Channel has faced a mountain of post-Brexit red tape and additional expenses, made worse by what many trade bodies saw as government misinformation over the true picture.
So, while there is now some degree of visa/work permit-free touring permitted in 21 of the 27 E.U. nations (Spain being the latest market to come on board), regulations and permitted lengths of stay vary wildly even within those “open” countries. Brits could previously work in Europe without any restrictions.
Faced with all this – and yet another Covid wave sweeping the continent – many U.K. acts are taking the easy way out and canceling any scheduled European dates.
Meanwhile, trade bodies are putting pressure on the U.K. Government to find pan-European solutions to issues such as cabotage, which restricts U.K. trucks to just three stops in Europe before they must return home.
“We need to convince these Governments to get to a point where everyone wins,” UK Music CEO Jamie Njoku-Goodwin tells Variety. “Hopefully, sense will prevail – but that relies on the whole industry continuing to do what it’s been doing, coming together to work on this and keep fighting.”
In the meantime, expect Brexit reality to bite even harder in 2022.
2. ONE ADELE OF A COMEBACK?
If 2020 saw most U.K. superstars in COVID hibernation, 2021 saw a spectacular awakening.
Indeed, retailers found themselves in the highly unusual position of having the three most consistent British album-sellers of recent times – Adele, Ed Sheeran and Coldplay – all releasing new albums within weeks of each other.
All three records posted a six-figure first week sale – something no album did in 2020 – but all three were significantly down on their previous high-water marks. Adele’s “30” sold 261,856 in week one, according to the Official Charts Company – 67% down on “25”’s first week in 2015. Sheeran’s “=” posted 139,107, 79% down on his last solo album, 2017’s “÷”, although up on 2019’s “No.6 Collaborations Project”. And Coldplay scored 101,045 on release with “Music of the Spheres”, 57% lower than 2015’s “A Head Full of Dreams”, although up on the more esoteric 2019 project “Everyday Life”.
Nonetheless, Entertainment Retailers Association CEO Kim Bayley says the influx of superstars has still boosted the overall business.
“No one expects those first week sales to be of the same volume they used to be, because the market’s obviously changed in terms of the mix [of formats],” she says. “But if you look at the big picture, it’s really positive. It does drive the whole market to heights, rather than just be about that one release.”
The influx has prompted some retailers to grumble privately about the need for labels to space out blockbuster releases, especially with next year unlikely to come up with a similar slate of A-listers. But Bayley remains optimistic about 2022.
“Who knows what superstar acts we’ll have by next Christmas?” she says. “There’s no reason to be negative about the music market at all.”
1. ANOTHER FINE DCMS
What could possibly be a bigger deal for the music industry than a new Adele album? Well, only the entire future structure of the business, of course.
This time last year, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) Parliamentary Committee inquiry into music streaming was only just getting started. But it dominated the music industry’s 2021 like nothing else, opening up the business’ inner workings like never before.
Highlights included the U.K. heads of the three major labels – Universal’s David Joseph, Sony’s Jason Iley and Warner’s Tony Harlow – being grilled by grandstanding MPs in an evidence session that brought the biz to a standstill; the DCMS Committee report that called for “a complete reset” of how artists and songwriters are paid for streams; and Kevin Brennan MP’s Private Members’ Bill on Copyright (Rights and Remuneration of Musicians, Etc) being debated in the House of Commons.
That Bill didn’t go through, to the relief of labels, but it did prompt a government minister to make clear it expects the industry to find a solution, otherwise it will consider its own legislation. And so, with the CMA market study looming, and the government convening working groups to study such issues as equitable remuneration and contract reform, the subject will still be a hot topic around music industry dinner tables this Christmas.
So can a solution be found?
“I’m optimistic that we’ll make some progress,” Geoff Taylor, CEO of labels body the BPI, tells Variety. “Because the BPI, AIM [indies trade body the Association of Independent Music] and the community of labels want to find ways to bridge the gap between the different positions and find every way they can to help their artists. That’s why they get up every day, to help artists succeed.
“It’s about finding constructive ways that can achieve that, without sacrificing the merits of what British labels bring to the table and without putting the UK at a disadvantage compared to other countries,” he adds. “Should Government decide that it’s necessary to intervene, that should be based on a very solid evidential foundation, rather than arguments which – whilst emotive and appealing – aren’t necessarily fully grounded in fact.”
Musician Tom Gray, who leads the #BrokenRecord campaign that – alongside the Musicians’ Union/Ivors Academy’s parallel #FixStreaming initiative – has gained huge traction amongst artists, is the man who has been making many of those arguments, although he insists that he is not anti-label. And he maintains the debate is actually straight-forward.
“It’s an industrial dispute,” he says. “When you put the data down in front of anybody they say, ‘Too much of the money is going to you [labels] and not enough to them [artists]. Look at the size of your profits, you need to adjust this’. It’s such a mundane argument.”
Both sides say they remain open to negotiations. But, with a government response expected by September, time is tight – and the stakes remain high, with Gray expecting the campaign to go international in 2022. So don’t be surprised if this story returns to the Christmas Number One spot this time next year as well…