Is thinking UK-first helping or harming British artists abroad?

Historically, what has the British music business been brilliant at? Producing culturally distinctive pop superstars whose talent and relatability has traversed borders. In recent years, that’s Adele, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, One Direction, Florence + the Machine, Mumford & Sons and Coldplay, following in the footsteps of greats like George Michael, Elton John and the Beatles. In the last two years, however, that hit rate has slowed. In 2017, Sheeran was the only UK act in the IFPI’s annual global recording artist top 10; will there be any British entries in that list for 2018? At home it’s a similar story – at the end of Q3, just two British acts appeared in the Official Albums Chart top 10 YTD list (George Ezra at No.2 and Arctic Monkeys at No.8).

There are a few explanations as to why this change in fortunes might have occurred. Firstly, music is cyclical and British hip-hop, R&B and rap has been having a long-awaited moment in the spotlight – though one which hasn’t yet set the US on fire. Secondly, I’ve heard complaints about a lack of support within the British media for straight-forward pop acts, who either have to appear ‘edgy’, or gain success in wider Europe before gatekeepers back home roll out the red carpet. Despite a clearly receptive audience for mainstream pop, labels are being left with fewer promotional avenues.

This can be seen in the fact that Dua Lipa had chart success in continental Europe before her breakout hit, Be the One, was playlisted by radio stations in the UK. George Ezra broke through Italy with Budapest, and it was a similar story for Rag N Bone Man. He first won radio support in Germany, which is also where Tom Walker broke through after his song Leave a Light On was used in a Sony advert. Thirdly, the global nature of streaming services, and Global Release Day, means that competition for playlist positions – one of today’s key routes to market – is truly worldwide, resulting in a very limited amount of space for British acts.

Global Release Day was widely supported by the industry back in 2015, when IFPI CEO Frances Moore said an aligned day for new music meant that fans in different countries wouldn’t feel like they were missing out. The ‘sell’ was that Global Release Day would lower the risk of piracy, and re-awaken the sense of ‘event’ around the release of new music. For all these upsides, Global Release Day removed yet another point of difference for UK artists. To borrow a phrase from YouTube champion Lyor Cohen, have there been ‘unintended consequences’ for British music? By aligning so closely with a huge market like the US, new UK artists are at a higher risk of getting buried under the weight of their Stateside counterparts.

On a global platform, US releases will naturally rule the charts, thanks to a larger population and key relationships with the biggest playlists. In the words of a quote I recently heard attributed to Mo Ostin: “The key to a No.1 is to make something appear to be No.1 first… What is the world’s favourite form of transport? The bandwagon, godammit!” More streams equals more and more streams, hence Drake spending a cumulative 29 weeks at No.1 on the UK’s singles chart over the last two years.

All of this isn’t to say that there aren’t any British acts making waves overseas. Dua Lipa is a big breakout story with three million album sales globally, and she could make that IFPI top 10 this year (despite her album being released in 2017). Ella Mai is the new name on everyone’s lips after hitting No.5 on the US Billboard 200 with her debut. Freya Ridings just secured a deal with Capitol, Rex Orange County sold out a North American tour in just one day earlier this year and Glassnote have high hopes for the hugely talented Jade Bird. However, Dua Lipa aside, none of these acts are being developed by a British major label. Ella Mai is Interscope first, Polydor second; Freya Ridings is independent at home with Good Soldier; Rex Orange County, while managed by a British company, is independent (despite fierce interest from labels on both sides of the Atlantic); and Jade Bird was signed by Daniel Glass in New York.

One of the observations made by executives I spoke to for an article on this subject for the Guardian is that while the world is more global than ever, the UK music industry may actually be becoming more local. This can arguably be seen in the wealth of developing British talent hitting Top 40 in the UK, including Dave, Mabel, Not3s, B Young and Kojo Funds. All are playing a big role in the strength of the local (and European) music market, but have a hard task attracting support on global stage when competing with superstars like Drake, Nicki Minaj and Post Malone. Are British record labels creating enough of a point of difference with their signings? And can these signings, given due time and patience, cut through in America?

One very successful artist manager spoke recently to MBW about the danger of the UK becoming an insular A&R fiefdom. “If we’re not careful, the UK is going to become Belgium,” he said. “We’re going to be giving out Gold records that mean nothing anywhere else. In my opinion, in the modern streaming industry, that approach puts you on a hiding to nothing.”

This column featured in the Q4 2018 edition of the quarterly MBUK magazine, details for which you can find here