×

The U.K.’s biggest festival, Glastonbury, made a glorious return this month. As well as 200,000 fans in the field, the festival scored record-breaking figures for the BBC, where festival content was streamed 34.1 million times on BBC iPlayer and listened to 2.3m times on BBC Sounds, up 116% and 205% respectively on 2019, the last time the festival was held.

And, after two years away due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival’s future now looks secure.

“With hindsight, having those two years off and time to reflect maybe wasn’t the worst thing,” says Glastonbury co-organizer Emily Eavis. “Because it made everybody love it even more. Everybody working on it is really appreciating it in a different way – that’s a real positive and will give it a real energy for the next 10 years at least. We’re all excited about the future.”

Glastonbury managed to keep two of its three proposed 2020 headliners (Paul McCartney and Kendrick Lamar) intact for the 2022 event, and Eavis says she hopes the third – Taylor Swift – will make her appearance sometime soon.

“I think we’ve got Taylor on board next time she’s doing some touring,” says Eavis. “We would love to have her back, obviously.”

+ Stranger things have happened, but you know it’s been an unusual month for the U.K. music biz when the nation’s hottest record is by Kate Bush.

The veteran singer-songwriter topped the singles chart in her home country with “Running Up that Hill”, after sales and streams soared when the 1985 song featured in Netflix sci-fi drama “Stranger Things” — nearly 37 years after the song was first released.

Leading that charge was market-leading streamer Spotify, which has a new head of music in the U.K. and Ireland in the form of highly rated executive Safiya Lambie-Knight. And Lambie-Knight – previously artist & label partnerships lead – says capitalizing on demand for such viral tracks has become a key focus for Spotify.

“Reactive moments are really important to us,” she tells Variety. “There are a lot of new playlists launched off the back of that basic concept. If something is happening on TikTok or elsewhere, it’s always reflected on our platform.”

Meanwhile, Spotify U.K. & Ireland managing director Tom Connaughton does not expect the “Running Up that Hill” rebirth to be the last time an older song takes off on his platform.

“Back in my label days, the catalog department was where good music and good people went to die,” quips Connaughton, who worked at Sony Music before stints at MySpace and Vevo. “But nothing is ever dead now, it’s just dormant, waiting for that spark. There are so many channels to audiences and so many ways that people can consume and share music these days.”

Lambie-Knight – hailed by Connaughton as “an exceptional executive” – says she has no plans for radical changes to the successful Spotify U.K. blueprint, but is hoping to bring live events back, with Spotify set to host an event in London next month that will bring fans together with artists and podcasters. The Spotify U.K. team – which also includes head of editorial James Foley and head of artist marketing Leroy Harris – also hope to have artists make greater use of the firm’s state-of-the-art London HQ, opened in January 2020 but rarely used since due to the pandemic.

Lambie-Knight is also planning to help give British music of a more recent vintage than Kate Bush a bigger push on Spotify internationally, with many in the U.K. biz concerned about a lack of breakthroughs, particularly in America. She cites widespread international support for artists such as Wet Leg and Central Cee on Spotify’s Radar program as proof of the boost Spotify support can give artists. Cat Burns, currently riding high in the U.K. charts with “Go,” will be the next artist to receive Radar support.

“Exporting British music is really important to us,” says Lambie-Knight. “There’s a lot of music coming out of the U.K. and Ireland and we’ve done a lot of work across that, both with emerging artists and established artists.”

But the Spotify duo also have domestic matters on their minds, with fears the U.K.’s raging cost-of-living crisis could hit streaming subscriptions. A recent Kantar consumer study suggested over a million music subscriptions were cancelled in the U.K. last quarter and, while Connaughton says Spotify suffered no increased churn after recent price increases for some plans, he does not rule out some fallout further down the line.

“We’re in a really healthy position,” he says. “But you’d be foolish to think music will be immune to what’s going on. Historically, it has been one of the most recession-proof industries and we’re positive that music is as essential for people now as it ever has been. But you have to be cognisant of what people are going through.”

Connaughton also says Spotify has been involved, both as members of the Entertainment Retailers Association and in their own right, in the U.K. Government’s working groups on the economics of streaming, expected to report back in the fall. He says the company is “ready to be open and active participants in the whole process,” should the Government recommend changes to the way artists are paid for streaming.

“Personally, I think the #FixStreaming and #BrokenRecord campaigns have been brilliant,” says Connaughton. “Shout out to everyone behind that, because it’s something we believe in. The more transparent this business is, the more opportunities artists are going to have to have their voice, fund their audience and build their business.”

+ Spotify may be streaming’s market leader, but the original digital music site is also making a comeback. Napster was the scourge of the music industry in the ‘00s, when its peer-to-peer file-sharing software helped decimate record sales.

But it went legit a long time ago now and is now relaunching as a Web3-friendly streaming service, after its acquisition by crypto firm Hivemind and blockchain company Algorand.

They have installed respected British music executive Emmy Lovell, who previously held several senior roles at Warner Music, as interim Napster CEO. She tells Variety that, while the streaming service will remain at Napster’s core, it will be enhanced by Web3 products, likely to include an NFT marketplace and Napster’s own cryptocurrency token, $NAPSTER.

Full details will be revealed in the coming months, but Lovell said artists should expect “a very easy a la carte menu for them to plug into, without having to understand technical requirements and get bogged down in multiple deal terms.”

While Napster’s subscriber numbers are dwarfed by the sector’s big players, Lovell says such technological innovations will help it stand out in a crowded marketplace.

“We can’t pretend we’re going to take on Spotify and Apple – we aren’t,” she says. “Streaming is competitive, particularly in the more mature markets, so we need to be creative about where and how we grow, and combine that with where Web3 is already established. There’s a real opportunity for us to grow our business in a different way and play in our own field.”

Lovell says she has had huge interest from artists and the music industry since becoming interim CEO in May – and says she would welcome an approach from Napster’s old nemesis, Metallica, the band that sued the original platform back in 2000.

“Who wouldn’t?” she laughs. “That’s part of our history. Back then, Napster was incredibly disruptive – and not in a good way. But we have a great relationship now with our rights-holders and artists, they truly understand that we are trying to have a positive impact on the industry.”

+ Meanwhile, British entertainment company Insanity Music is celebrating its 25th anniversary with some ambitious expansion plans.

Founder and CEO Andy Varley launched Insanity as an events business from his bedroom as a 17-year-old schoolboy, but the company now encompasses talent management (for broadcasters and content creators as well as musicians), a record label, booking agencies and a podcast division, amongst other interests.

And Variety can exclusively reveal that it is launching a new brand partnerships agency, Annex97.

“We’ve created Annex97 to facilitate partnerships on behalf of talent and brands alike,” Varley tells Variety. “The team can obviously secure commercial opportunities for talent across the Insanity global rosters. But it can also act as a partnership business for other management companies, playing on our experience of negotiating brand deals.”

“We have a real opportunity to do something pretty substantial on a global level with Annex97,” he adds. “The marriage of music and talent with brands is really quite significant.”

Varley says Insanity’s content creator roster has a combined following of more than 250 million people, and the company was already closing hundreds of brand deals each month. He says the new division will be “digitally focused, data-driven and backed-up by 25 years’ worth of talent representation experience.”

He also has plans to launch a music publishing company this year, following a similar boutique model to Insanity Records, launched in partnership with Sony Music in 2015. Since then, Insanity has helped Craig David to return to stardom (although he has now departed, on good terms, for BMG) and scored recent breakthroughs with singer-songwriters Tom Grennan and Joy Crookes.

Grennan and Crookes will both release new albums next year, while Varley also hopes to “galvanize and expand the music and records side of the business in America.” Insanity currently has 14 U.S. staff in Los Angeles, where it recently made moves into scripted film/TV projects.

Insanity has achieved all its success despite remaining completely independent but, with acquisition fever gripping the music business, Varley doesn’t rule out selling some or all of his business at some point.

“Never say never,” he says. “If I was to partner up with somebody, whether a private equity investor or a bigger entertainment partner, it would need to be somebody who can add value to our business and help us truly scale up on a global level. But it would be great to find a partner where we can add some value to their business as well.”

In the meantime, however, Varley is planning for the next 25 years.

“I’d love to sound really humble and say this has all come as such a surprise,” he laughs. “But I always had this vision of Insanity being something big. I have no desire to slow down at any point soon – things are too exciting at the moment.”

+ Another Brit making a name for himself globally is DJ and presenter Charlie Sloth. Sloth invented the “Fire in the Booth” freestyle platform that features on Apple Music’s Rap Show, and has starred some of the biggest names in the genre, including Drake, Stormzy, Lil Baby and Megan Thee Stallion.

Sloth first came up with the concept in 2007 when starring in his own “Being Charlie Sloth” show on WorldStarHipHop.com. He then took it to the BBC, where he presented on Radio 1 and 1Xtra, despite some initial reluctance from corporation bosses, before joining Apple in 2019, inspired by Zane Lowe making the same move.

Since then, Sloth says that “Fire in the Booth” – already known for helping cement the reputation of many U.K. rappers – has attracted a run of stars from the U.S. scene.

“It’s really resonated with the artist community in America,” Sloth tells Variety. “Lil Baby is one of the biggest artists in the world right now, so him wanting to come into the studio and prove he can rap to the culture, the artist community and the world is mind-blowing.”

FITB has over 1.4 billion online views in total and recently launched its first international franchise, “Fire in the Booth Germany,” with a local host, DJ Maxxx. Sloth – a serial entrepreneur who also has his own vodka brand and record label and interests in nightclubs – plans to launch four more international editions in the next 12 months.

Sloth says that, while the format is, essentially, “just you, a microphone and a crazy fat white guy screaming and pressing sound effects to hype it up,” it has become an essential proving ground for rappers.

“If you can rap, people are going to see that and appreciate your skillset even more,” he says. “But if you can’t, you’re going to get exposed and that’s the beauty of ‘Fire in the Booth’: there’s nowhere to hide.”

But he also hopes the success of “FITB” can help launch stars from the U.K.’s vibrant hip-hop scene internationally, where British rap has only found limited success.

“A big part of me joining Apple Music was, I wanted to be a part of the first British international rap star story,” says Sloth, who tips Giggs, Central Cee and D-Block Europe as the Brits most-likely-to. “I wanted to make sure I was in a position to help whoever that artist is going to be make the transition into being a global superstar.

“The synergy between British and American street culture has never been so close,” he adds. “There was always a massive language barrier and a perception that British people all drank tea and ate crumpets. But a lot of that started to change when more American artists started coming over here and now we’re at a point where it’s not if, it’s when.”