Brit Beat: Parliament’s Streaming Hearings Bring Deadlock, Harry Potter References; Alan McGee’s 24 Hour Party Rages On

Mark Sutherland
·6-min read

Below is Variety’s inaugural UK music industry column covering the need-to-know stories from across the pond…

Anyone searching for a gripping new TV show to watch during lockdown could do a lot worse than stream the evidence sessions from the UK Parliament’s investigation into the economics of music streaming. The Department For Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee launched its inquiry last year, in order to probe whether artists and songwriters are currently receiving a big enough share of streaming revenues. And, so far, it’s provided more drama than anything on Netflix: where else could you see Universal Music UK chairman/CEO David Joseph and Committee chair, Julian Knight MP, trade Harry Potter-based barbs? (After some angry exchanges back in January, Joseph described Universal as “a company of Gryffindors”, and Knight retorted, “I think the performance has been more Hufflepuff today, to be honest.”)

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The season finale wasn’t quite so fiery, as DCMS Minister Caroline Dinenage repeatedly dodged the central question of whether the market requires government intervention, instead suggesting the industry should “get round a table” and sort it out amongst themselves. That seems unlikely though, with little common ground on display between indies, majors, artists, publishers, songwriters and the DSPs.

But here’s the cliffhanger: over the next few weeks, committee members will draft a report containing recommendations for the government. Depending on what the report says and how the government responds, it could potentially lead to legislation changing the way artists get paid. The #FixStreaming and #BrokenRecord campaigns, which have gained significant online support during the inquiry, are hopeful that a user-centric payments system and/or broadcast-style equitable remuneration for some streams will be on the agenda. The labels, meanwhile, will be hoping Dinenage ultimately opts to maintain the status quo. Watch this space or, even better, catch up with season one here.

One thing that’s definitely not in dispute about the UK streaming business is just how successful it is. New figures from trade body the BPI showed that revenues from streaming rose 15.4% in 2020 to £736.5 million ($1.01 billion). That helped total recorded music revenues rise to £1.118 bn ($1.5 bn), up 3.8% despite the pandemic. That’s its highest level since 2006, although the BPI says 2021’s performance is still 19% below the UK industry’s 2001 peak.

While recorded music has been booming, however, the British live music scene has now been silent for over a year thanks to the pandemic. Thankfully, the UK’s vaccine rollout is running ahead of most other countries, with almost half of the adult population already having received a first dose. And now its festival program is following suit. A string of high-profile 2021 events, including Reading & Leeds, Isle Of Wight and Wireless, have been announced in recent weeks and have sold thousands of tickets following the announcement that large scale events may be possible from June 21. But the status of many smaller events remains uncertain, with the UK Treasury stalling on approving the sort of government-backed COVID insurance scheme already introduced in several other European countries. Association Of Independent Festivals chief executive Paul Reed tells Variety this will inevitably mean further cancellations, even as lockdown eases, as organizers baulk at paying the average £6 million ($8.2m) cost of putting on an event, without a safety net if things go wrong. “That would be the ultimate own goal for the government because festivals can play a role in the economic recovery of the country,” says Reed. “Festivals will then truly be the last part of live entertainment to open up.” …

One event that is definitely happening this year is UK music’s annual awards showcase, the BRIT Awards. It has a date (May 11), a host (comedian Jack Whitehall, returning for a fourth year, equalling James Corden’s run) and a new-look creative team, with the highly-rated duo of EMI Records President Rebecca Allen and Universal Music UK EVP Selina Webb appointed 2021 show-runners. What the BRITs don’t have yet is any clarity on whether they will be able to host an audience. The ceremony is under consideration to be one of the UK’s pilot events for reopening after coronavirus restrictions. But show insiders tell Variety that few details of what that would actually entail have been forthcoming, with many believing the option will time out soon. Having a crowd would also hamper the show undergoing the sort of reinvention staged by this year’s Grammys, which impressed the BRITs team, despite the US awards’ huge ratings drop. …

Creation Records founder Alan McGee once got a shout out from the BRITs stage, as Oasis’ Noel Gallagher described him as one of “seven people in this room giving hope to the young people in this country” (the other six were the five members of Oasis, and future Prime Minister Tony Blair). McGee is again the talk of the UK industry, thanks to the Sky Cinema release of his riotous biopic “Creation Stories.” It tells the no-holds-barred story of how the famously maverick exec, played by “Trainspotting” actor Ewan Bremner – who perfectly captures McGee’s passion and manic, twitchy energy – took Creation from tiny indie label to the biggest record company in the UK, by signing the likes of Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine and Oasis, who he discovered in a chance encounter at a gig in Glasgow. At the same time, drink and drugs drove McGee to the brink of self-destruction, until he cleaned up in the mid-‘90s and channeled some of that energy into politics, even becoming instrumental in helping Blair get elected. It’s not a tale that you’d think would require much embellishment, yet many in the UK biz have noted just how fast and loose Creation Stories plays with what actually happened, despite being based on McGee’s autobiography of the same name. McGee, however, isn’t bothered. “I don’t know if I’m that dramatic,” he said ahead of the release, “But the bottom line is, it’s a film so that’s what it’s like.” Now, if only they’d got him to testify to the streaming inquiry…

Mark Sutherland has been covering the British music scene for over 25 years, most recently spending five years as editor of UK trade magazine, Music Week. Follow him on Twitter at @msutherlanduk.

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