Brit Beat: U.K. Industry Quiets Down for Royal Mourning; Bring Me the Horizon’s Success Spurs Management Expansion
It’s been a curious month for the U.K. music biz, with events dominated by the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
Her passing was announced just as the industry was descending on the Mercury Prize with Free Now awards in Hammersmith, West London – a ceremony that was abruptly pulled, despite 11 of the 12 nominated artists being in the room.
Organizers will now have another try on Oct. 18, although how many of the nominees will make the rescheduled date remains to be seen.
The official mourning period also had a significant impact on the country’s radio networks, with most music stations shifting overnight to somber music and news updates.
The BBC won particular praise for its sensitive balance of music programming on stations such as Radio 1, Radio 2 and 6 Music, while the increased airtime demand for ballads even saw the vintage likes of John Legend’s “All of Me,” Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love,” Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” and Beyoncé’s “Halo” return to the upper echelons of the official Radio Monitor U.K. Airplay Chart.
Things are now getting back to normal – and one long reign that won’t be coming to an end anytime soon is that of Kim Bayley, chief executive of the Entertainment Retailers’ Association (ERA).
Bayley celebrated 20 years at the helm this month, with congratulatory messages from the likes of YouTube’s Lyor Cohen, Warner Music Group’s Max Lousada and Sony Music Group’s Rob Stringer, who praised her for overseeing “a complex transition to an organization that undoubtedly helps keep the recording industry focused and pragmatic – which is not always an easy task!”
Bayley notes that transition has seen entertainment retail move “from a 100% physical business, when I started, to a 90% digital business.”
That journey has not been without its frictions – and many physical retailers have disappeared from British High Streets in that time. But Bayley insists her Digital Service Provider members – which include Spotify and Google, but not Apple Music – played a crucial role in saving the music industry.
“The difference between now and 20 years ago is that our members drive change,” Bayley tells Variety. “They’re creating new business models and driving the music business to the next stage in its development. I always say they don’t get enough credit, but at least there is a lot more acknowledgement these days that the DSPs have done a great job of reviving an industry that was ailing at the time.”
Bayley and ERA are involved in the U.K. government’s various working groups, which continue to explore possible solutions to increase artist remuneration from streaming. And she warns that no one should look at the streaming services’ share of revenues as a possible answer.
“We already hand over 70% of everything that we are generating as a DSP industry, and therefore the wider industry needs to look at how they divide the 70%,” she says. “If you suddenly reduced the margins on a business that already doesn’t make any money, we’d have to make money elsewhere – and we’re already criticized for doing podcasts or making money from other things that aren’t music.”
Bayley says there has been “lots of positivity” in the talks and she is similarly upbeat about the broader retail picture, despite the country’s raging cost-of-living crisis and the U.K. economy tanking under new Prime Minister Liz Truss.
A recent Kantar consumer survey said that over one million U.K. music subscriptions were canceled in Q1, but Bayley says her members see things differently.
“I’m sure there is an element of some people moving from a paid-for service to a free service but, in terms of volumes of streams I’m seeing, I can’t believe that number of people are canceling subscriptions.
“All of our consumer research tells us people are cutting going out for meals and trying to save money on fuel; they’re not seeing the need to cancel their Spotify subscriptions,” she adds. “We feel quite positive we should be able to ride out a difficult economic environment.”
Oct. 15’s fifth annual National Album Day – organized by ERA and the BPI – is designed to celebrate the album format, and Bayley says the event “is already close to Record Store Day in terms of PR value,” although it is not designed to give a similar sales boost.
In the meantime, Bayley hopes to expand the ERA membership further, saying she “would love services like TikTok and Facebook to join.” And, despite changes at the top of many other U.K. music trade bodies, she has no plans to move on.
“I know everybody else is leaving,” she quips. “But clearly they don’t have the staying power!”
Also celebrating a significant anniversary is the Music Managers Forum, which was formed 30 years ago this month.
It was originally launched at Manchester’s In the City music conference to fight record company demands for decreased royalty rates on the Digital Compact Cassette and, while the format didn’t endure, the organization has. Along the way it has evolved from a talking shop into a formidable campaigning force and educational resource for its nearly 1300 members, which range from people just starting out in the industry to the managers of some of the biggest artists in the world.
“There are some things the MMF was campaigning on 30 years ago that we’re still campaigning on now,” CEO Annabella Coldrick tells Variety. “But we have seen real progress as well. The industry has become a better place partly because there is the scrutiny of an organization like the MMF.”
Coldrick joined in 2015 and cites the likes of its Accelerator Program – held in association with YouTube, and which has given early support to managers of breaking artists such as Joy Crookes, Pink Pantheress and Dry Cleaning – as key MMF achievements. And it too is heavily involved in the current streaming negotiations, which Coldrick says are approaching “crunch point.”
“There’s a draft of a transparency code of practice that we think has merit,” she says. “But at the moment, it isn’t strong enough to make a practical difference. And there’s also a very difficult discussion that needs to happen around [artist] remuneration.
“The recording sector is growing, which is brilliant, but there needs to be a recalibration to make sure everyone’s sharing more fairly,” she adds.
Coldrick says the MMF will continue to call for government legislation if an industry solution isn’t found. And with such issues still around, she expects the MMF to last for at least another 30 years.
“There will always be people making music who need support and a team to help them navigate the industry and achieve their goals,” she says. “So, there will always be managers and, as long as there are managers, there will always need to be a forum to support them.”
Rock music is traditionally one of the U.K. music industry’s strengths, but the genre has been going through a lean time in recent years as it struggles to gain traction on streaming services.
But Raw Power Management – the company behind rock behemoths such as Bring Me the Horizon, Bullet for My Valentine, You Me at Six and At the Drive In – believes the tide is finally turning after it signed a joint venture agreement for a new rock imprint, Funhouse, with Britain’s biggest label, EMI Records, run by co-presidents Rebecca Allen and Jo Charrington and managing director Clive Cawley.
Funhouse has already made its first signing, of British alternative rockers the Blinders, and Raw Power CEO Craig Jennings tells Variety the new label will do deals with between two and four acts a year, with a mixture of new and established artists and those both inside and outside the Raw Power Management stable.
“EMI have been seeing some upward movement in streaming of rock acts, so there is a gap,” says Jennings. “There aren’t a lot of A&R teams around the world that are really focused on signing rock acts, certainly at the majors. It helps to have an act like Bring Me the Horizon as a flagship, showing the potential for rock music and alternative rock.”
RPM clients Bring Me the Horizon, signed to Sony’s RCA Records, have been a rare heavy breakthrough in recent times, and are now selling out arenas worldwide, including in North America. Their stunning co-headline slot at Reading & Leeds Festivals last month, which featured a guest appearance from Ed Sheeran at the southern leg, was seen by many as a breakthrough moment for the whole U.K. rock/metal scene.
“The band were determined to do something special,” he says. “What it shows to any band we sign is that this is what’s possible. We know how to break a band worldwide and for anything that we sign, we’ll look to that to be the ultimate goal.”
Despite that success, the Reading/Leeds shows were actually Raw Power’s first major festival headline (“I had my first band on at Reading in 1986,” Jennings quips, “If someone had said to me then I’d have to wait until 2022, I’d have probably given up! But good things come to those who wait…”). But Jennings says the band will now “100% be festival headliners going forward” as they look to achieve even greater success.
“We have the ambition to go to several more levels with the band,” he says. “The door’s not just ajar but starting to gape wide open for them. The band keep making amazing music, the shows are doing brilliantly and, in the next couple of years, they’ll be breaking more barriers and surprising people about what they’re going to do.”
Jennings says mainstream stars such as Olivia Rodrigo and Machine Gun Kelly dabbling in rock music is acting as a “gateway drug” to introduce fans to the genre.
“When I was 17, I’d have hated it because I was so wrapped up in my punk-rock attitude,” he says. “But anything that shines a light on rock music has got to be a good thing, because that allows radio and TV programmers to start looking towards our world.”
Raw Power’s previous imprint, Search And Destroy, will remain with Spinefarm Records and will continue to release music by signings such as Bullet for My Valentine, Atreyu and While She Sleeps. And Jennings is also boosting Raw Power’s management operations, with a new office in Tokyo and plans to expand its American arm, run by Bring Me the Horizon co-manager Matt Ash.
“We’re looking at adding staff and potentially [signing] some more US acts,” says Jennings. “Our set-up in the U.S. will look very different in a couple of years’ time. Mainstream success is what I want for our acts, but on our terms.”
Mainstream success has largely eluded British independent label Fierce Panda over its 28-year history. But it has still made a huge impact on the U.K. industry, as it released early records by many bands who went on to international success, including Coldplay, Keane and Placebo.
Originally founded to release a one-off EP celebrating the pre-Britpop “New Wave of New Wave” scene, the label’s history is celebrated in founder Simon Williams’ new memoir, “Pandamonium!: How Not to Run a Record Label,” a hilariously funny and deeply moving book that has been the talk of the U.K. business since it was published earlier this month.
As well as the highs and lows of running the label (and his previous careers as an NME journalist and Xfm DJ), the book also documents Williams’ mental health struggles and attempted suicide in 2019 with a frankness absent from most music biz memoirs.
And, while the book can be scathing about some aspects of an industry that Williams describes as being “populated by sociopaths and ego-crazed nutbags who don’t give a shit about music,” his own enthusiasm for gigs and records is undimmed by years of struggle.
“I can’t think of a time when I was sitting there running Fierce Panda and there hasn’t been anything new and exciting to look forward to,” he tells Variety.
He’s unimpressed by streaming (“There’s no point playing the game with Spotify because they don’t like weird shit. They need stuff that sounds like everything else – and that’s the absolute antithesis of what Fierce Panda’s always been about”) and modern A&R techniques (“I don’t know how you can sign any musician without seeing them play live – it bewilders me, it’s like buying a car you’ve never driven”), but nor does he want to be credited as the man who “discovered” all those bands.
“It’s embarrassing, isn’t it?” he scoffs. “The reason we did Coldplay and Keane was they’d both been rejected by the entire music industry – the whole thing’s a fucking shambles!
“With Coldplay, we were there for six months in a 25-year career, so I don’t expect plaudits,” he adds (although Coldplay themselves recently hailed him as the person “without whom we would be nowhere at all”). “I’m too busy finding the new whatever – although I’ve given up on finding the new Coldplay, it’s too tiring and no one cares!”
Despite some notable successes – including releasing a classic Oasis interview, “Wibbling Rivalry” which reached No.52 on the U.K. charts – Fierce Panda has never had a Top 40 single. But, having moved away from its once signature one-off seven-inchers by hotly tipped artists to more conventional long-term album deals with alternative bands such as Desperate Journalist and China Bears, a reinvigorated Williams says the label will be around for a long time to come.
“Never having a hit is the thing that saved us,” he declares. “The great thing about Fierce Panda is you’re always ahead of the curve. You can see the whole thing going to shit and adapt straight away.
“We’re never going to have that hit single but a hit album would be nice – and it might be Desperate Journalist’s fifth album. We’re always trying to find the next window of opportunity because it gets very boring just sitting there weeping in the corner!”
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