February in the U.K. music industry is traditionally dominated by the Brit Awards, and this year the ceremony returned to its customary slot, having been forced to move to May in 2021 by the pandemic.
But, despite resuming its rightful place in the calendar with a star-studded line-up including Adele, Ed Sheeran and Liam Gallagher, the event posted its lowest-ever TV ratings with 2.7 million tuning in, down from 2.9 millon last year.
However, bosses won’t be too concerned because, as in the U.S., TV ratings only tell part of the story: The ceremony also reported record digital engagement under chairman Tom March’s multi-platform plan. There were 27 million views for Brits content on YouTube, a 42% year-on-year increase in TikTok views, and 1.6m visitors to the official Roblox after party. The event also sold over 1,500 units in its first NFT drop.
Adele, Dave and Ed Sheeran saw the largest impact in terms of post-telecast rising album sales, but one artist feeling the uplift of Brits exposure is rising UK rapper Little Simz. She was nominated for four awards, winning Best New Artist, and also delivered one of the night’s standout performances of tracks from her album “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert,” overseen by creative director Jeremy Cole.
“The crossover has started,” Simz’s manager, Robert Swerdlow of Starwood Management, tells Variety. “We’ve connected a lot of dots and created a halo effect. People had heard about her, but getting music to resonate with people sometimes takes a minute. And not only did [the BRITs] get to a brand-new audience that we can see through streaming, the support from the wider industry has been overwhelming. There’s a lot of love and respect for Little Simz and this has galvanized it.”
Swerdlow and Simz plan to use the Brits attention to boost her career stateside, where the going has traditionally been tough for U.K. rappers.
“We’re committed to going over there multiple times this year and being present at the festivals,” says Swerdlow. “She’s very well respected and definitely has a fanbase that we can build out from. Plus, her language suits Americans.”
Simz has been one of AWAL’s biggest success stories. But despite her proclaiming the importance of her independence from the awards podium, Swerdlow says she has no plans to leave AWAL if/when its sale to Sony goes through, with the final U.K. regulatory verdict due by March 17. But nor is she likely to join fellow AWAL alum Girl in Red in upstreaming to a Sony label.
“The partnership is working well,” says Swerdlow. “This year is mapped out so there isn’t anything that will change things for us and our pathway.”
Simz is already working on her next album (her fifth, despite that Best New Artist status) and Swerdlow – who also reps Michael Kiwanuka and quips about taking on Simz’s mother as a client after her appearance on stage during the star’s Brits acceptance speech went viral – expects her profile to rocket.
“She has a global footprint, a global audience and a global touring schedule,” he says. “We just want to accelerate and develop the on-going relationship with our global partners everywhere. We set our ambitions a couple of years ago so to be given this spotlight is really encouraging. We’ve now got our sights on some new ambitions, that’s for sure.”
+ Meanwhile, another award-winning U.K. artist with big Stateside ambitions is Arlo Parks, who is currently on a U.S. tour with Clairo. Her management company – Beatnik Creative, run by Ali Raymond – has today joined the Blue Raincoat Music Group, as CEO Jeremy Lascelles aims to ramp up operations across the group, particularly at relaunched frontline label Chrysalis Records.
The original Chrysalis was one of the world’s leading independent labels, home to artists such as Blondie, Jethro Tull and Billy Idol, before being sold to EMI in the late ‘80s. Ownership passed to Universal and then Warner Music before Lascelles and Blue Raincoat co-founder Robin Millar bought it in 2016.
In what Lascelles dubs a “full circle moment”, the tip that Chrysalis was available as part of the Parlophone Label Group divestment came from then Association of Independent Music CEO/chair Alison Wenham. Lascelles has now installed Wenham as Chrysalis COO, with a brief to “grow the business and make sure we’re operating with maximum efficiency.”
“Chrysalis is in a very advantageous position because it’s got management, publishing and records,” Wenham tells Variety. “It puts artists at the heart of everything it does. And we have [Blue Raincoat owners] Reservoir in New York which is a great big war chest, so we won’t be shy of doing acquisitions and deals.”
One such acquisition was legendary label Tommy Boy Records, which Lascelles says will now be “amalgamated operationally with Chrysalis.” Wenham is also overseeing Chrysalis’ digital distribution move from AWAL to being a direct supplier through Merlin.
Despite the move, due to take effect in April, Wenham says AWAL are “being incredibly supportive and helpful.”
“At the time when I started the conversation, their future was a bit uncertain because of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) investigation into their acquisition by Sony,” she says. “We would probably not have wanted to go to Sony.”
In the long term, Lascelles says Chrysalis will offer its own “variation” on the artist/label services model for third parties. In the meantime, he says Chrysalis’ storied catalog has undergone “extremely strong streaming growth,” while its frontline label operation, which only launched in February 2020, provided an early pandemic hit when it brought forward the release of Laura Marling’s “Song for Our Daughter” album, issued in partnership with Partisan Records.
“Not many labels would have reacted in that same way to that particular crisis,” says Lascelles. “The knee-jerk reaction from most people was: put everything back, wait for the world to get right again. Well, the world is still pretty fucked up, so…”
Chrysalis will release British star Emeli Sandé’s new album in May and more signings are imminent, but the plan is to keep the roster small, with the group’s interests in management and publishing mitigating against fallow periods.
“I have people working across all the different activities,” says Lascelles. “Therefore I don’t have a machine that has to be fed by constant releases. We rely on quality and artists we believe in and care passionately about.”
The publishing operation looks after Nick Drake’s catalog, and Chrysalis will release a new tribute album to the legendary singer-songwriter later this year. Lascelles promises “radical reinterpretations from a very eclectic range of artists from different parts of the world and different musical genres.”
While Wenham and Lascelles both say their primary objective is to “have fun and enjoy it”, they also hope to provide “an alternative universe to the majors.”
“The way in which we do business is fast, agile and market-facing and it will always be that way,” says Wenham. “The independent sector is a very interesting place to be right now.”
“We don’t have to be scrambling to sign every buzz act or reality TV act or the things that tick other companies’ boxes,” says Lascelles. “We can focus on things that we’re good at and that makes us a better company. What’s so healthy about the music landscape now is that you can have an incredibly successful career as an artist without bothering about many of those things that used to be absolutely central to breaking an act. Radio play, hit singles, chart positions – those things have gone as the metric by which we measure success.”
+ Sony’s AWAL deal seems to be cropping up in every conversation this month. But, while the CMA provisionally cleared the acquisition earlier this month after concluding it would not substantially reduce competition in the U.K., it may not be over quite yet.
Helen Smith, executive chair of European indies body IMPALA, tells Variety that her group will object to the provisional findings by the March 4 deadline.
“We will also be flagging that how regulators assess what are perceived as small acquisitions remains a key issue for the independent sector,” she says. “If we want a competitive and innovative music market, it’s clear we also need more options for the independent sector to grow and access finance.”
Watch this space…
+ The CMA’s other big bit of music work, its market study of the music streaming sector, is also now under way. That was a key objective for the #BrokenRecord and #FixSteaming campaigns that have picked up so much support amongst artists and songwriters over the past two years.
Now #BrokenRecord campaigner Tom Gray is going legit: he’s taken a role at the heart of the music industry establishment, having been elected the new chair of songwriters’ trade body The Ivors Academy, replacing fellow streaming campaigner Crispin Hunt.
Gray’s campaign has ruffled feathers across the industry, but says his new role grants him “a seat at the table,” alongside Ivors CEO Graham Davies, in the on-going government process to determine whether artists and songwriters are fairly remunerated from streaming. One executive on the record company side spoken to by Variety likens this to “inviting the fox inside the henhouse.”
“Somebody else described it to me as finally letting the lunatic into the asylum,” a laughing Gray tells Variety. “But when the hens come and talk to the fox, they’ll realize he’s not really a fox at all, he’s just a smart bloke who got a little bit tired of bullshit.”
Gray will also prioritize the Ivors campaign against buyouts in the film and TV soundtrack industry, and support singer Rebecca Ferguson’s efforts to try and establish an independent standards authority for the music industry. But he says he is “laser-focused on trying to do something for songwriters and musicians.”
He praises Warner Music for following Sony Music’s lead in cancelling recoupment for contracts signed before the year 2000 (Universal is expected to follow suit later this year), but says more still needs to be done by the majors.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s extraordinarily positive that they’ve recognized something that was obviously a problem,” he says. “But if they were bringing people up to a minimum royalty at the same time, that would really be what good looks like.”
Gray expects merging his #BrokenRecord platform with the Ivors role to prove “an extremely powerful combination” and says he’s encouraged that people who had previously tried to ignore the campaign are now taking meetings with him. He pledges to be “reasonable and pragmatic” in negotiations but also has a warning for the industry.
“I’m a man with a plan,” he says. “I’m not somebody who just wants to give people the warm and fuzzies. There’s a reason for me being here and everybody knows it.”