The future of British music in the face of covid, streaming and brexit

“The British are coming!” That’s been the slightly self-conscious undertone to any victorious UK citizen at a US awards ceremony, ever since Chariots Of Fire picked up the Oscar in 1982 and screenwriter Colin Welland made his famous speech.

But British music has rarely needed to make such grandiose statements, such is its track record of international success. And indeed, UK artists were again centre stage at the 2021 Grammy Awards, with Dua Lipa and Harry Styles making plenty of waves across the pond with their live performances.

Both picked up awards as well, but once the glitz and the glamour had subsided, the trained eye would have noted those well-deserved victories came only in the more minor, genre-based categories.

The biggest awards remained the province of US superstars, with even Lipa’s stellar 2020 not enough to beat out the American competition. That’s been the story in recent years, with no UK winner of the top awards (Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year, Record Of the Year) since Adele scooped all three in 2017 (although Lipa did pick up the almost-as-prestigious Best New Act in 2019). We haven’t had a four-year barren streak on the three biggest gongs since the dark days of the early Noughties.

Generally, of course, British music still punches well above its weight internationally – earlier this year, the BPI’s All Around The World report revealed that UK artists are responsible for one in 10 global music streams. But the IFPI’s annual Top 10 Global Artist Chart was a Brit-free zone for the first time ever (although several UK acts featured between 11 and 20), with South Korea’s BTS topping the list ahead of nine North American acts.

So what’s gone wrong? Well, part of this is cyclical of course. The UK’s cadre of superstars – Adele, Ed Sheeran, Coldplay – were all off duty in 2020 and few new artists broke anywhere thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

But all the evidence points to a gradual lessening of British influence around the globe, with 2020 a tough year for UK music on most international charts. The shift to catalogue streaming keeps the overall figures healthy – after all our history is stacked with legendary acts from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones and Oasis to David Bowie – but the real concern is where the next superstars are coming from.

And, right now, the answer often isn’t the UK. The internationalisation of streaming, and the rise of global streaming charts, has meant K-pop, J-pop and Latin music have moved from local to global popularity, while the UK lacks the population weight to move the dial on its acts unless they’re also gaining traction elsewhere. Meanwhile, the rise of local language scenes, particularly in hip-hop, means reduced export opportunities for the UK’s finest.

“The very strong performance from K-pop and J-pop, combined with the growing influence of North America, is making it harder for British artists to get to the very top of the tree,” says Geoff Taylor, chief executive of the BPI and BRIT Awards. “When artists who make music as brilliant as Dua Lipa can’t make the IFPI Top 10, it shows it’s getting tougher. Ten years ago, a Korean band wouldn’t have stood a chance of getting to the top of the global sales chart, but with streaming it’s absolutely possible.”

Things aren’t about to get any easier, either. The UK is the No.2 exporter of music in the world (after the USA), but now finds barriers between it and its closest export market, the European Union, after the folly of Brexit. Streaming may acknowledge few borders, but the removal of visa and work permit-free travel for musicians is a further blow to those artists looking to expand their horizons.

“The pandemic has bought the industry and government some space,” says Annabella Coldrick, chief executive of the Music Managers Forum. “But we need to get to a place of frictionless travel where UK acts can easily tour their biggest market. Brexit brings new direct costs, such as work permits and carnets, and indirect costs of increased bureaucracy. These costs could prevent new emerging talent from breaking European markets.”

Coldrick notes that the cost of US priority visa processing also rocketed under Donald Trump, leaving UK artists with another headache after a year without live music. Both the BPI and the MMF are calling for government help, with the establishment of a music export office – found in many other countries – high on the agenda.

“The UK can’t rest on an assumption that we’re naturally good at music, and we’re entitled to success,” warns Coldrick. “The globalised digital market is far more competitive – which is why we’ve been calling for a music export office to develop and support a British music export strategy. These have been hugely important for other countries where they’ve had the challenge of breaking into English-speaking markets.”

Taylor notes that streaming could yet take UK music to new heights, with the BPI predicting UK music exports could top £1 billion by 2030.

“The opportunities if you do it right are huge,” he says. “But the challenge to do it right and get to the top is harder than ever. That is why what’s needed is a concerted effort to promote British music overseas. And now is the time that that needs to be done…”

Talks are ongoing with the Department For International Trade and the Department For Digital, Culture, Media & Sport about a joint strategy and the possible launch of an export office, while the industry is still working behind the scenes to fix the Brexit touring issue. And there remain some hopeful signs for the next generation – with Polydor-signed Glass Animals hitting No.1 in Australia and climbing Spotify’s Global Top 50 with ‘Heat Waves’, while 2020 BRITs Rising Star winner Celeste (also on Polydor) recently received an Oscar nomination for her song, ‘Hear My Voice’.

But no one’s breaking out the victory speeches just yet.

“There’s always an ebb and flow to these things,” says Coldrick. “In between the British invasions of the ‘60s and the ‘80s there were also less popular times. Our challenge is to ensure the next generation of talent reaches that global stage.”

“We’re producing great talent, that’s not really the concern,” agrees Taylor. “It’s getting that talent heard by enough people around the world. We have the credibility and the know-how, but it is about investment as well, and that’s where a joint partnership with government can really help the number of UK artists who reach that level of success.”

So are the British coming, or going? Only time – and the global streaming numbers – will tell…