From the superfan to the most casual of listeners, music plays an indispensable role in most British lives. According to AudienceNet’s Audiomonitor report, 77 % of UK adults listen to some music on a typical day, for an average of two and a half hours.
This seeming near-ubiquity is not achieved without constant innovation in both its creation and dissemination. In last year’s introduction I wrote about how context is the key to discovery for music, and that if imaginative situations were created in which to discover it, people would naturally respond. One way in which we do so is through collaborating with the other entertainment sectors that we are supposedly competing against for consumers’ attention. Films from 2019 such as Rocketman and Yesterday were underpinned by classic catalogue, while TV series such as The Umbrella Academy make great use of repertoire both old and new. Our BPI Insight Session event in October looked at the intersection of music and eSports, and over the course of the year there was much discussion around the impact of services such as TikTok and how the virality of a 15-second clip of a song can sometimes be enough to propel an artist (back) into the spotlight. There is an ever-expanding selection of cross-platform opportunities to explore.
The bottom line, however, is the music itself. Breaking new talent is of course a priority for the industry, and a number of exciting new artists made real waves with debut albums in 2019. Both the Hyundai Mercury Prize and Mastercard Album of the Year at the 2020 BRIT Awards were won by Dave’s Psychodrama, an eloquent and powerful examination of both personal and social turmoil, while Lewis Capaldi – also a BRIT Award winner – topped the year-end chart with Divinely Uninspired To A Hellish Extent. Tom Walker went straight in at number one with the Platinum-selling What A Time To Be Alive, while the International breakout star was undoubtedly Billie Eilish, whose beguiling first album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was the third-biggest seller of the year. What’s most thrilling, perhaps, is that these artists are in the vanguard of a new generation of diverse talent that includes the irrepressible Lizzo, BRITs Rising Star recipient Celeste, and BRIT School graduate Freya Ridings, to name just a few.
While some commentators claim that the album is becoming less relevant, young musicians such as these are proving that modern audiences – often stereotyped as flighty and fickle - have both the appetite and attention span for the long-form expression of their art. For many performers the album is a significant marker on their creative journey and the chance to fully articulate their vision at that point in their life, something that fans clearly still respond strongly to.
Streaming now accounts for over three quarters of income in the recorded music industry and this momentous change in the way music is consumed will undoubtedly have a far-reaching ripple effect. The role of the album is one issue, while the lessening importance of gifting and a subsequent move away from a fourth quarter-heavy release schedule, as more key titles are launched across the year, may well be another. Additionally, the increasing take-up of smart speakers and the subsequent uptick in social listening has implications both for music discovery and the way in which we influence each others’ tastes. That said, the continuing growth in sales of vinyl LPs and – more recently – cassettes shows that the more traditional forms of accessing music do not necessarily have to be sacrificed to accommodate the new.
Tastes may be more cosmopolitan than ever before, but the past 12 months have shown us that British music continues to have a great deal to be proud of. Through Stormzy, Dave, AJ Tracey and others UK rap is at a new critical and commercial peak and even though global competition for attention in the streaming age is fierce, artists such as Ed Sheeran, Mabel, Dua Lipa, Rex Orange County and Lewis Capaldi have kept the profile of UK music high with their international chart success.
But, of course, since we started pulling together all the stats and insights for this book, the long shadow of COVID-19 has been cast across our industry, as it has across all economic sectors and the global community generally. We know that the live and retail sectors, along with the artists and labels that rely on them, are feeling the force of its impact. Nonetheless, all of us who work in music are affected, and the long-term implications will only become fully apparent over time. We know the music industry is hugely resilient, innovative and creative and, having embraced technology to so effectively connect with billions of fans online, we can be encouraged that it is well placed to help lead the way forward. We must also never forget music’s unique power to connect us all, even at a distance, to reduce feelings of isolation, and to cheer our hearts and to soothe our minds. This will be even more valuable in these troubled times. Labels are working to help physical retailers cope with the serious challenges they face, and to support their artists and the many freelancers they work with, and the BPI will do all it can to support its members and the wider community as they show their inventiveness and adaptability in rising to this new challenge.
In the meantime, it’s right that Government has made the public’s health and well-being a national priority along with supporting its economic and social needs. Once the crisis eases, however, and it is the right time to do so, we will press them once again on key issues that continue to face our sector, and which prevent it from realising its full potential. These include the need for a UK-EU free trade agreement that does not interfere with the ability of our artists to tour in Europe, introducing greater accountability of digital platforms for the content they use, introducing tax credits to boost investment and a partnership with Government to promote exports.
The data presented in this yearbook – the 41st that the BPI has produced – suggest reasons for cautious optimism in the midst of a period of tremendous upheaval for the recorded music industry. We are now in our fifth consecutive year of revenue growth, with almost half of the population aged 16 and over paying to own or access music. It is especially encouraging to see the increase in uptake of paid streaming amongst teenagers, but experience has taught that there is no room for complacency – despite music’s centrality to everyday life, leisure time is more crowded with options than ever before. As always, the BPI will strive to forge an environment in which British music, and those who create it, can flourish.
Chief Executive BPI and BRIT Awards