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The week in audio: the budget on Nihal Arthanayake; The Price of Song – review

Miranda Sawyer
·6-min read

The budget on Nihal Arthanayake (Radio 5 live) | BBC Sounds
The Price of Song (Radio 4) | BBC Sounds

Spring is here, and to herald its arrival the chirpy birdie that is Rishi Sunak is twittering away on the radio. “I said I would do whatever it takes,” chirrups the Rishi bird. “I have done and I will do so.” Ah, the budget. Rishi’s big spring moment.

Let’s have a listen, shall we? The Rishi bird has a ringing, singing voice and impeccable phonetics. It does not suddenly make loud noises for no real reason, unlike, say, the Boris (what is Boris? One of those bristly penguins? A lost, lumbering bear? An over-indulged pet dog that’s got tangled in its owner’s dirty washing?). Anyway, unlike the Boris, when the Rishi bird emphasises our in “our economy”, that is deliberate. Unlike the Boris, who says “und” when he means “and”, and “rarely” for “really”, the Rishi keeps its vowels in order. Its song is perfectly clear.

Actually, I’m going to have to drop this animal analogy, because listening to the chancellor work his way through his budget on Nihal Arthanayake’s 5 live show, I realised that Sunak’s voice reminded me of a very particular human. I apologise, but once you’ve heard it, it’s hard to unhear: Sunak sounds like Tony Blair. They have the same clear, well-paced phrasing; a light, metallic pitch; a similar relish over words such as “British people”, and the sort of inspiring yet meaningless catchphrase that’s designed to capture an audience’s heart. “That which we are, we are,” said Sunak towards the end of his speech. (To which the only answer is: “Wut?”) Exceptional Blair-speak. Full marks.

After the budget, 5 live listeners had their say, nitpicking and up-beating through the vast array of Sunak’s new fiscal power initiatives. Arthanayake and 5 live’s economics expert Mark Syred, dealt with them all with cheer and intelligence. My favourite question from a listener was straight and to the point: “What is a free port?” It sounded like a two-mark question in a politics GSCE and Syred got his double tick (a free port avoids all those nasty Brexit customs tariffs, essentially).

More finance. In The Price of Song, on Radio 4 on Tuesday, John Wilson met various musicians, of varying success. First up was songwriter Fiona Bevan, who was lovely: she told of how she co-wrote Little Things in an afternoon with Ed Sheeran, who then offered it to One Direction, who made it a massive hit, hooray! Bevan made the point that the best songs are not written with money in mind: they’re the result of happy collaboration, of emotion, of a particular moment in time.

Still, they certainly make others see dollar signs. “The song is the currency on which this business trades,” said Merck Mercuriadis, who runs Hipgnosis. Since 2018, Hipgnosis has acquired ownership of thousands of songs, having bought the publishing rights for vast amounts, either directly from the songwriter or (more commonly) from the record company. This approach is different to a usual publishing deal, which is about the writer rather than the individual song. Hipgnosis wants the hits. Now, every time Mandy by Barry Manilow or Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson is played anywhere in the world, Hipgnosis gets paid, gradually clawing back the amount paid for it (and more).

Björn Ulvaeus.
Björn Ulvaeus: ‘It’s not fair.’ Photograph: Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP

An interesting, topical subject, and Wilson handled it expertly. He’s great at talking to artists, but also at explaining the broad sweep of a changing cultural business. As producer as well as presenter, he pulled in the right names, including Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus. “There is a difference in how people consume music,” said Ulvaeus. “They go much more for the song these days, than even a couple of years ago.” He’s not going to sell up. Neither is Paul McCartney, who bought back the Beatles’ song catalogue from Michael Jackson: “I feel like I’m looking after them.” No shock there.

The real gut-punch came from Bevan, who co-wrote Unstoppable on Kylie’s recent No 1 album Disco. Bevan predicts she will earn £100 in streaming royalties. One hundred pounds. “One stream for the rights holder is 0.004p,” said Tom Gray, from the band Gomez. Streaming services don’t pay artists directly. So if you stream a song from a new, niche unknown, the money doesn’t go just to them, but to hundreds of other artists, in proportion to how popular those artists already are. “It’s not fair,” says Ulvaeus. No, it’s not. The economics of the music business have long been a mess, but now they’re blatantly wrong.

Three shows to ungrump you

Beatlejuice
Geoff Lloyd, one of the UK’s best music radio hosts, brings his Beatles obsession to Union Jack Radio with a two-hour weekly show starting today at 10am. Inspired, he says, by the promo for Peter Jackson’s new film about the Fabs’ final months, Lloyd aims to cheer us all up via the simple method of reminding us just how good the Beatles were. He answers queries (where did the Beatles get their ankle boots?) and drops Beatles trivia (which track, other than The Fool on the Hill, features a recorder?), all interspersed with songs that can still, even now, make your heart burst with joy. Perfect Sunday-morning listening.

Ian Wright’s Everyday People
The lovable Wrighty is two weeks in to his new podcast, in which he talks to ordinary people who’ve achieved or gone through extraordinary things. Last week he talked to Chris, who walked from Land’s End to Edinburgh in bare feet, carrying a 25lb load, in order to raise the £2m-plus needed to create gene therapy for his daughter and other sufferers of CDLS, a rare, incurable disease. This week, he meets Mel, whose 25-year-old son Jordan was killed when a stranger punched him in the head. Stories that are hard to hear, and almost impossible to live through, yet Wright’s warmth makes these interviews uplifting and inspiring.

Anthems: Women
Anthems, from Broccoli Productions, is a long-running series of single-voiced manifestos and speeches, often based around one word. Each speaker gives you a short personal insight, their take on life, with thought-provoking results. For the month of March, Anthems brings a different woman’s voice every day (better a whole month than a single woman’s day). At the time of writing there were only three, but each was very different, though survival and identity are common strands running through each one. I especially enjoyed last Wednesday’s, from Francheska (@HeyFranHey), who grew up in a house with 10 – 10! – adults. Her theme was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Aloneness.