The big one, that’s what they called it. This was the term Ant & Dec, the presenters of this year’s Brit Awards, used for the British Album of the Year category. The whole show was structured so that it led up to this award, the final honour of the night. It has always been an important trophy. However, between 1977 and 2010 (and with a reprise in 2012) it was eclipsed by the Outstanding Contribution award, which in these years held the honour of being the concluding prize.
Now the Brits prioritize the album. Why should the BPI, the institution behind the Awards, want them to have this focus? Surely they are rendering their ceremony out of date: albums are on the way out. Sales of physical albums in the UK declined last year from 61.4 million to 52.2 million. Sales of digital albums also went down. In 2013 32.6 million were sold; in 2014 this was down to 29.7 million. It is the streaming of individual tracks that is on the rise. Activity in this sphere doubled. There were 7.5 billion streams in 2013; there were nearly 15 billion last year. If the Brit Awards were to have a modern focus, they would be swimming in this stream. And yet this digital format isn’t even mentioned in their categories.
The BPI has its reasons. Although sales figures are going down, it is still albums that make the most money. The combined sales of physical and digital albums brought in £713 million last year. In comparison, single sales brought in £163 million. For the first time, streaming income was larger than that of singles. However, the value stood at just £175 million, less than a quarter of the value of album sales. Moreover, hidden behind these top-line retail sales figures, there are a whole series of profit margins and royalty payments. These place the profitability of the album even further ahead. There has been plenty of discussion about artists’ poor royalty rates when it comes to streaming. Although record companies are better placed to gain income from this format, it is the CD album that is easily their most profitable medium.
This is not the only reason for the BPI’s focus, however. This organisation looks after the interests of the British music industry. Albums are more parochial than singles. In 2014 the top 10 best selling albums in Britain were all by British artists. This is the first time that this has happened. The situation was different for streaming. The year’s top 10 streamed tracks came from a variety of sources: five from British acts, three from the US, one from Holland and one from Canada. The end of year singles top 10 was less localized still, with four tracks from British artists, one from a Dutch act and five from Americans. This is reflective of a longer historical pattern. For the past ten years the best selling album in Britain has been by an artist from the UK. In contrast, since 2009 only one British artist has had the best selling single in the country, and that was Adele with her unstoppable track ‘Someone Like You’ in 2011.
Although the Brit Awards are supposed to be about merit, they are really about money. This has become more imperative as the fortunes of the British music industry have declined. Writing about last year’s awards, I focused on the way they predict and promote the following year’s blockbuster talent. The British Album of the Year award is all about the previous year’s blockbuster, however. More often than not, it is handed to the best selling album of the previous 12 months. This was the case with this year’s winner, X by Ed Sheeran. It was also true of Emile Sandé’s win in 2013 and Adele’s in 2012.