In theory, the Brit Awards are about the recent past. To qualify for an award, an album or single must have been released in the previous 12 months and an artist must have released a recording in that period. In practice, they are all about the future. One aim of the televised ceremony is to maximize album and single sales. The awards presentations are leavened with live performances, and it is the latter that are more effective at promoting releases (following Adele’s performance at the 2011 ceremony, sales of ‘Someone Like You’ increased by 785%). Another aim is to promote new artists. The British Phonographic Industry, which operates the awards, has orientated them in this direction. In 2008 they introduced a ‘critics’ choice’ award, whereby a panel of industry insiders designate a forthcoming star. More recently, they have dropped their ‘outstanding contribution’ award, which used to be given to industry veterans, and replaced it with a ‘global success’ award, which seems to be the exclusive preserve of One Direction.
In theory, the Brit Awards are fair and open. The official website claims ‘The Brit Awards operates a completely transparent procedure’. It details the qualifying criteria: all albums and the 1,000 best-selling singles released by British artists in the preceding sales period are eligible. Industry figures then put forward their personal top fives after being sent a list of these titles. In practice, the awards are closed and unclear. There is no information about who chooses the eventual winners or how they are chosen. There is also no explanation of why, despite the multitude of qualifying artists and records, such a small number make it through to the final shortlist. This year, nine separate awards were available for British artists, with winners chosen from 46 shortlist places. However, only 24 acts shared the nominations between them.
In theory, the aim of the Brit Awards is to celebrate British music. In practice, they are reliant on foreign talent. There are three ‘international’ awards, and in order to maximize viewing figures (and sell the latest tracks and concerts by the artists concerned) there are live performances by major global stars. This presents an awkward balancing act for the British Phonographic Industry. The nascent British acts that it is promoting – last night Disclosure, Bastille and Rudimental were among the artists to perform live – have to measure up against seasoned American performers – Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars all appeared, and the show was stolen by Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers.
The Brit Awards are evidence of a culture of blockbusters. In her recent book of the same name, Anita Elberse argues, ‘The highest-performing entertainment businesses take their chances on a small group of titles and turn those choices into successes by investing heavily in their development’. This is the opposite of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory; rather than the ‘future of business’ coming from ‘selling less of more’, the focus of media corporations is concentrated on a few stars and a few key releases. Time is concentrated, too. Aside from talent shows, there are now few opportunities to promote music on British television. The record companies have to focus much of their promotional activity on this single annual event.
As a result, the Brit Awards have to ensure that the critic’s choice is right. These are the future blockbuster acts who they hope will sit alongside the American stars. So far, they haven’t done badly. The first winner was Adele, who was the best selling albums artist in the world in 2011. The second was Florence and the Machine, whose two albums topped the UK charts. The third was Ellie Goulding, who has sold over 10 million singles worldwide. The fourth was Jessie J, whose first single ‘Price Tag’ debuted at number on in the UK singles chart. The fifth was Emeli Sandé, who had the UK’s biggest selling album of 2012. The sixth was Tom O’Dell, who perhaps has the lowest profile of the winners so far, but has still achieved a number one UK album.
2014’s critics’ choice is Sam Smith. He has already proved his worth via the music industry’s version of an apprentice scheme. He has been ‘featured’ on a number of singles by other acts. The first was ‘Latch’ by Disclosure, which reached the UK top 20 in late 2012. His next guest spot was on ‘La La La’ by Naughty Boy, which reached number one in Britain, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Italy and the Lebanon. Confirming the concentrated nature of the Brit Awards and the British music industry, Disclosure were nominated for four awards this year and ‘La La La’ was shortlisted for best single and best video.
Back in 1973, the British glam rock group Sweet released a single which asked ‘does anyone know the way, there’s got to be a way, to blockbuster?’ They found the answer. After the group appeared on Top of the Pops wearing make-up and German army uniforms their record went to number one. In 2014 there is a new response: get your act nominated for as many Brit Awards as possible. We’ll need to look at next week’s charts to find out who the real winners were.
N.B. An edited version of this article is available, with academic rigour and journalistic flair, at The Conversation.