February in the U.K. music biz is all about the Brit Awards, and Britain’s flagship music ceremony will once again see some notable changes for this year’s event.
After two years of COVID restrictions, this year will see the notoriously noisy industry tables return to the arena floor at the O2 in London. There’s also a new Brit Awards chairman in the form of one of the business’ biggest characters, Atlantic Records’ U.K. MD and president of promotions, Damian Christian.
One thing, however, remains — somewhat unexpectedly — the same. The 2022 ceremony had been billed as long-serving executive producer Sally Wood’s final Brits, but she is back for 2023, telling Variety that she “simply wasn’t ready to stop making the biggest music show of the year.”
“The Brits have always been my dream job and I didn’t want the dream to be over,” she says. “I might have more than my fair share of sleepless nights, but I still feel like the luckiest person in the business to be working with so many creative, talented and wonderful people.”
Adding to Wood’s insomnia this year is the ceremony’s shift to a Saturday night for the first time in its history, where broadcaster ITV can expect some serious ratings competition. The slot traditionally attracts the biggest audiences of the week across the networks, while the Brits have hardly proved a ratings behemoth in recent years, pulling in 2.7 million viewers last year in a midweek slot.
“With great scheduling comes great responsibility!” quips Wood. “It’s incredible that ITV have trusted us with a prime-time Saturday slot and we know that we are going to deliver on the night, but that doesn’t mean we are taking anything for granted. We are upping our game across the board.”
Wood promises “bigger and better performances and a star-studded roster of presenters” for this year’s edition, with the likes of Harry Styles, Stormzy, Lizzo and Sam Smith & Kim Petras confirmed to appear live. But Wood picks out fast-rising indie-rockers Wet Leg, nominated for four awards, as one of the ones to watch…
“Wet Leg are going big on their creative,” Wood says. “I love it when an act appears on the show for the first time, they come with a potent cocktail of excitement, adrenaline and a nervous energy which, when mixed, can create a truly memorable performance. That’s the beauty of the Brit Awards; we have the biggest artists in the world performing alongside fresh, new talent.”
Wood says Christian’s “award-winning background in promotions” and experience of “big event television” has also boosted this year’s preparations.
“We’ve been working to ensure each performance will lift the roof off the O2 arena and send the socials into meltdown,” she declares. “This year is shaping up to be an absolute classic.”
To find out whether the Brits lives up to that hype, viewers outside of the U.K. can tune in to the YouTube livestream on Feb. 11.
One Brit Award winner has already been decided: new R&B group FLO will pick up the Brits’ Rising Star gong at the ceremony, the first non-solo artist to do so. The group was also voted the winners of the influential BBC Sound of 2023 poll, adding to the buzz caused by “Cardboard Box,” its breakout single on social media last year.
The group – Jorja Douglas, Stella Quaresma and Renée Downer – was signed to Island Records U.K. by A&R Rob Harrison, and label president Louis Bloom says the group was allowed to work things out in private for a long time before the label launch.
“What was important was that the girls had the time, and support, to properly develop, have the space to find their sound and songs and perfect their craft,” Bloom tells Variety. “They have worked seriously hard behind the scenes to get where they are and deserve everything they have coming to them. Ultimately, everything comes from Jorja, Renée & Stella; they call the shots.”
Previous winners of the Rising Star award include Adele, Florence + the Machine, Sam Smith and Sam Fender, giving it a reputation for virtually guaranteeing breakthrough success. But Bloom says the label is taking nothing for granted.
“The fact there aren’t a lot of ‘girl groups’ out there certainly presents an opportunity,” says Bloom. “However, that would be totally meaningless if FLO were not ridiculously talented. No one else is doing what they are doing, and doing it so well.”
The British music biz will certainly be hoping FLO’s bid for global success pays off. The lack of new breakthrough global stars continues to concern local executives, with labels body the BPI calling on the U.K. government to “support our export ambitions.”
“We’ve always punched way above our weight globally and we still do,” says Sophie Jones, BPI chief strategy officer and interim CEO. “We look at countries that are doing well globally and they have got very strong export strategies, South Korea being the obvious example. It’s tough to compete when there’s that sort of investment going in and clearly South Korea is reaping those rewards very handsomely.”
Nonetheless, the year-end market figures show a national industry in good health. Recorded music consumption increased 4.3% year-on-year to 166.1 million album equivalents in 2022, according to the BPI, while the Top 10 biggest-selling singles of the year all featured British artists for the first time in history.
Jones tells Variety that the results are “a very positive endorsement of the talent coming through.”
Within the headline figure, streaming rose 8.1%, ahead of 2021’s 5.7% rise, and Jones insists there is still room for further U.K. growth.
“There’s still headroom,” says Jones. “There are still listeners who are not yet using streaming platforms routinely and there’s plenty of room for movement between free and subscription services, which will benefit the industry in economic terms.
“That said, we know the U.K. is a pretty well-established market for streaming,” she adds. “We need to place our focus on getting the best possible share of global growth, because there are some significant markets that are only now starting to see streaming take off.”
Jones also raises concerns that, should the government introduce legislation enforcing alternative models for remunerating artists – following the recent Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) Committee inquiry into the economics of music streaming – record company investment in new talent could be hit.
“We need an environment in which that kind of investment can take place,” she says. “I don’t think it is under threat at the moment but, were there intervention into the market, it would be absolutely essential to look at the potential impact on future investment.”
The DCMS Committee recently called on stakeholders to speed up the progress being made by the various working groups looking into the issues around streaming, but the BPI – which represents all three major labels as well as many independents – is currently without a permanent CEO, following the departure of 15-year vet Geoff Taylor.
Jones says she has no idea how long she’s likely to be in charge, but stresses the BPI is continuing to work on all fronts in the meantime.
“We’re obviously going through a period of change,” says Jones. “Geoff has been an amazing leader, but he’s left a really good team and we’re cracking on. Whoever comes into this role will be very fortunate to come into a brilliant place with a lot of exciting things to do.”
Meanwhile, another leading British trade body has found its new boss, with Silvia Montello having started her job as CEO of the Association of Independent Music (AIM) on Jan. 31.
Montello moves across from the Association for Electronic Music to take over from Paul Pacifico at a crucial time for the independent sector. The indies’ market share grew to 28.6% of all music consumption in 2022, according to the BPI, up from 26.9% the previous year and its fifth consecutive year of growth. But much of that growth seems to be coming from DIY/self-releasing artists rather than the traditional indie labels that make up much of AIM’s membership.
“The routes to market are now easier for starter and developing talent,” Montello tells Variety. “They’re now able to self-distribute, be their own labels and their own teams and that’s going to continue to drive market share. I don’t think labels are ever going to disappear, but the label model evolves to suit the needs and desires of emerging artists coming through.”
Elsewhere, Sony’s acquisition of AWAL and Universal’s purchase of a 49% stake in indie giant PIAS will likely hit the independent sector’s market share (although PIAS will be able to remain a member of AIM under the Association’s rules) and many execs privately raise concerns about whether even the largest independent companies can compete without external finance.
“Access to investment is incredibly important,” says Montello. “We’re struggling with an economic crisis and a cost-of-living crisis so we need to look very carefully at how we could increase the opportunities for that investment.”
Montello brings a wealth of music industry experience to the role, including previous stints at Universal Music Group as well as at BMG and AWAL. And she thinks that 360-degree insight will prove crucial as the industry attempts to find a resolution to questions thrown up by the DCMS Committee’s streaming inquiry.
Montello will now be involved in those discussions and warns: “We need to be very careful about having entrenched ‘us and them’ conversations, when we really need to be looking across the piece to increase the value of music altogether.”
“I’m keen to see a solution that benefits all the stakeholders across the ecosystem, and not one that is focused on robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she adds, saying she plans to meet with #FixStreaming and #BrokenRecord campaigners as well as all other interested parties. “Some very well-meaning people have maybe gone into this debate, asked the wrong questions to the wrong people and not looked at that bigger picture yet.”
Under Pacifico, AIM and the BPI – historically, often at odds – became more closely aligned on several issues, including streaming. Indeed, Pacifico had been widely tipped to move across to the BPI, until he took a job as CEO of the Saudi Arabia Music Commission.
During her Variety interview, Montello was not afraid to criticize the BPI-run Brit Awards for its 2023 nominations, which have caused controversy due to the all-male Artist of the Year shortlist (“People are very disappointed and surprised to see that, given the richness of female talent within the U.K. – we need to make sure we don’t go backwards”).
But she also called for the music industry to work together after a fractious couple of years dominated by the streaming debate.
“Collaboration is what’s needed in the music industry to drive things forward,” she says. “We need to look at what the external threats are to our industry, in terms of consumer spend and other factors. Rather than fighting amongst ourselves, we need to group together and stand our ground for fantastic U.K. music and artists.”