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Brit Beat: Brit School, Home to Adele and Amy Winehouse, Turns 30; Streaming Battle Heads to Parliament

·11-min read

A great British institution enjoying a post-COVID recovery is the Brit School. The performing arts and technology college – located in Croydon, South London and funded by the government and the U.K. record industry – is 30 this year, ironically a number also being celebrated by its most famous former student, Adele. The school has returned to normal teaching operations after moving most learning online during the pandemic.

During those 30 years, a remarkable amount of its alumni have gone on to become major stars in music and film, including Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis and Spider-Man actor Tom Holland. But principal Stuart Worden – who joined the school three years after its launch – says the college is much more than a production line for talent.

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“If you lined up FKA Twigs, Kate Tempest, Loyle Carner, Jessie J, Black Midi and Imogen Heap, they’ve only got one thing in common: they all went to the BRIT School,” he tells Variety. “We don’t teach people how to write a song in a formulaic way, we don’t say, ‘This is how you need to live’… Students can walk around here and find a sense of confidence in themselves.”

Unusually for a U.K. performing arts school, students do not have to pay fees, something Worden credits as key to its students’ “hunger for success.” But that does mean the school relies on the music industry for fund-raising, at events such as the Brits and the Music Industry Trusts Award. It has also attracted recent sponsorship and support from the likes of YouTube, Hipgnosis, Motown U.K. and Live Nation, but more is always welcome.

And Worden says the heavily over-subscribed school now hopes to attract international students via a move into online learning.

“We’ve noticed that people all around the world want some Brit School,” he says. “In lockdown, we were getting viewers from all over the world coming to our shows online. We don’t want to go and set up a school in New York, but we do think we’re onto something here that young people want and need. I love the idea that a young person in any part of the world who wants to be a dancer, but can’t get dance lessons, can join the Brit School without having to fly to England.”

The School hosts its 30th anniversary celebration on December 15-16 with a tribute by current students to the 1990 Knebworth concert that helped provide the school’s initial funding. That gig starred the likes of Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Dire Straits, and Worden believes his school will continue to turn out world-beating artists.

“We’ve probably gone beyond their wildest dreams with what the school’s achieved,” he says. “But I’m not surprised. The Brit School is just this amazing thing.”

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The long-running battle over U.K. streaming payments opens up a new front this week, with Kevin Brennan vividly named MP’s Copyright (Rights and Remuneration of Musicians) Private Member’s Bill due for its second reading in the Houses of Parliament on December 3.

Brennan was one of the stars of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Parliamentary Committee’s investigation into music streaming earlier this year. And the bill puts forward many of the recommendations from that committee’s report, which famously called for “a complete reset” of how streaming payments are made to artists and songwriters.

The government has not yet acted on most of those recommendations, instead asking the business to try and come up with its own solutions via an ongoing “music industry contact group”. There is also an imminent market study by the Competition & Markets Authority.

But few in the industry expect those processes to proceed smoothly, so Brennan’s bill is being backed by the Musicians’ Union, the Ivors Academy and the #BrokenRecord campaign as a potential alternative. Brennan claims the reforms in his bill would “lead to more new music, the revival of recording studios, a boost to the U.K. session music scene, the unearthing of a new generation of British talent, and Britain becoming once again a world-leading cultural hub for the recorded music industry.”

So can it succeed? Private member’s bills very rarely make it on to the statute book (although one fairly recent exception did involve music, the 2012 Live Music Act), but the Brennan Bill has already attracted considerable cross-party support. That has rung alarm bells amongst some in the labels’ camp.

A BPI spokesperson said that the bill would “bind British music in red tape, reduce income for the most entrepreneurial artists, stifle investment and innovation by record labels, and disproportionately harm the independent sector. It would create huge uncertainty and deny many of the next generation of artists their shot to build a career. It completely misunderstands today’s music business, and the value that labels provide in finding and nurturing talent.”

Sources on both sides of the debate accept the fact that further progress for the bill remains a long shot, let alone it becoming law. But with the U.K. Government distracted by controversies and crises, no one can quite rule it out, and the stakes remain high.

Even if it fails, the debate will keep the #FixStreaming and #BrokenRecord campaigns in the spotlight. And, of course, the Brennan bill offers the Government a potential legislative template down the line should other, more back-room efforts to reform the sector fail.

Either way, it looks like peace on earth could remain in short supply across the U.K. biz this Christmas…

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The U.K.’s flagship music awards ceremony, the Brit Awards, will undergo a revamp in 2022 under its new chairman, Polydor co-president Tom March.

It will have a new host (comedian Mo Gilligan); a new creative from Gorillaz set designers Block9; four new genre categories in alternative/rock, hip-hop/grime/rap, dance and pop/R&B; and a move away from male and female artist categories for artist of the year and international artist of the year.

It’s the latter move that has attracted the most attention. Some of the reaction has been predictably, well, reactionary – the likes of Piers Morgan, Queen’s Brian May and Secretary of State for Digital, Media, Culture & Sport, Nadine Dorries have been amongst those voicing criticism. But the music industry itself is highly supportive of the move, which was on the cards for several years before the change was made in March.

It comes despite male artists dominating other open categories. Female artists or mixed groups have won only nine of the last 30 Brit awards for British Album of the Year, but the presence of Adele on the 2022 shortlist could help improve that run…

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The F List for Music is an industry organization that has been set up to help deal with just such imbalances. Founded in 2020 by former BASCA (now Ivors Academy) CEO Vick Bain, it has just recruited musician Brix Smith (the Fall, the Adult Net, Brix & the Extricated) as its president.

Smith will help raise the profile of the F List’s directory, which lists over 5,000 female, trans and gender minority musicians to help festivals and other events achieve gender-balanced line-ups. And Bain is worried that the Brits move to gender-neutral categories could yet prove counter-productive.

“If you have gender-neutral awards categories, what you get reflected back at you is the discrimination that exists in the music industry,” she says. “It’s a pipeline problem. The people in those judging panels can only choose what’s been nominated – and who submits the work? It’s the record labels. If they’re only signing 20% women, how many women are going to win those awards?”

The main target for Smith and Bain, however, remains the U.K. festival circuit. The F List has already assisted numerous independent events and Bain says she is in correspondence with Festival Republic boss Melvin Benn over the Reading & Leeds Festivals, criticized in the past for male-dominated line-ups. Meanwhile, Bain and Smith highlighted AEG’s All Points East, which recently announced its 2022 line-up featuring only male headliners, although the event has previously featured numerous female artists in headline slots.

“It is just gross about festivals,” says Smith. “That’s very much a sticking point that needs to change. There should be equal opportunities for everybody, regardless of anything. It’s time to open your eyes and try and level the playing field.”

And Bain – who would welcome like-minded people launching a U.S. version of the directory – warned that the social media backlash against male-dominated line-ups was “damaging [festivals’] reputation and is not good for business.”

“The younger generations are demanding equal line-ups, that’s what they expect to see now,” she adds. “We are literally handing organizers a tool that shows 5,300 female musicians in all genres of music, so it’s not like the women are not there. They’re there and they’re brilliant.”

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One festival people will be pleased to see return in 2022 is the Country to Country (C2C) festival, due to be held in London, Dublin and Glasgow on March 11-13. Launched in 2013, the festival was hit harder than most during the pandemic, with its March date meaning it had to cancel both the 2020 and 2021 editions. Miranda Lambert, Darius Rucker and Luke Combs will headline in 2022.

C2C has become a vital bridgehead for U.S. country acts looking to expand their audience across the Atlantic. Many American acts have been unable to play live in the U.K. since the start of the pandemic, while sister event Country Music Week did not take place this year, after a digital edition in 2020. But promoter Alex Simmonds of SJM Concerts says the hiatus has not dampened British enthusiasm for the genre. The U.K. now has multiple country music radio stations, while streams of the genre rose around 40% year-on-year in the first half of 2020.

“We’re selling more tickets than we’ve ever sold before,” Simmonds tells Variety. “With the radio stations and streaming figures, I don’t feel it’s set the genre back at all. We’ve got so many artists desperate to return to the U.K. because they love playing here and it’s really important that country continues to build in Europe.”

But Simmonds said the U.K. scene still needs support from Nashville.

“I’d like to see country considered a mainstream music genre in the U.K.,” he says. “I’d like to hear it regularly on [national Top 40 station] BBC Radio 1 and, from a touring perspective, to see artists coming every month. We see these artists playing arenas and stadiums in the U.S. and we’re working to build them to that level here. But it’s not an overnight thing. You need to invest in the market and come back year after year. Don’t just come for one show, make it part of your overall plan.”

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The London live scene will receive a further boost in Spring 2022 with the long-awaited return of one of its most famous venues. Koko in Camden, North London – which has staged landmark performances from everyone from Charlie Chaplin to the Rolling Stones, The Clash, Madonna, Prince, Amy Winehouse and Ed Sheeran – will finally re-open then, after a three-year closure caused by refurbishment, a fire, water damage and the pandemic.

During that time, the venue has had a complete revamp and Variety’s tour of the new set-up reveals its reinvention with multiple performance spaces, an in-house radio station and a private members club as well as the celebrated main theatre. It will also become a global digital platform for musicians via a partnership with SISTER, the content company set up by Elisabeth Murdoch, Stacey Snider and Jane Featherstone, with the entire building set up for livestreaming.

“We live in a new world where everyone is looking for unique experiences,” Koko CEO and founder Olly Bengough tells Variety. “Koko will allow artists to create limited-edition events through the physical space, and one-off digital events. The artists can take their fans on a journey that’s never been done before and find dynamic new ways of entertaining and monetizing their audience.”

Bengough compares his vision to “a bespoke movie studio for musicians and artists” and hopes that big name acts will take over the entire venue for unique multi-performance shows, although Koko will retain its trademark support for new artists. He says numerous bookings with a number of “really great artists” are already in place for 2022, as the live circuit returns to full capacity.

“It’s been the most difficult era people can remember,” he says. “It’s incredible to see how great the appetite is for live music. As much as people talked about it disappearing, it hasn’t gone away. We live in a world where everything is so tech driven, but actually you need a break from that to feel like you’re part of something authentic. I can’t see why next year won’t be a great year for everyone in the live music industry.”

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