Brit Awards driven by blockbuster culture

Rudimental won best single. Yui Mok/PA

David Bowie, the Arctic Monkeys, and Ellie Goulding were among the winners at Wednesday night’s Brit Awards. In theory, these were awarded because they were the cream of last year’s music crop. 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.

But in practise the Brits are not about the recent past. They are about the music industry’s plans for the future. One of the aims of the televised ceremony is, of course, to maximize album and single sales. The awards presentations are leavened with live performances, and it is these that are most 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. And 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: 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, as well as 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.

But really, 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. In 2014, nine separate awards were available for British artists, with winners chosen from 46 shortlist places. However, only 24 acts shared the nominations between them this year.

The aim of the Brit Awards is ostensibly to celebrate British music. But in practice they are reliant on foreign talent. There are three “international” awards, and in order to maximise viewing figures (and sell the latest tracks 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 and Bastille were among the artists to perform live – have to measure up to seasoned American performers – Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars all appeared. The show was stolen by Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers.

What we are seeing here is a culture of blockbusters. In her recent book, 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.

So 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. So far, they haven’t done badly. We’ve seen Adele, Florence and the Machine, and Emeli Sandé, amongst others, all of whom have seen enormous success. Last year the winner was Tom O’Dell, who perhaps has the lowest profile of the winners so far, but has still achieved a number one UK album.

The 2014 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.

But if we look a bit closer at this, we can see the concentrated nature of the Brit Awards, as promoted by the leaders of 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.