On 11 February, the Brit awards will break new ground, taking place on a Saturday for the first time in its 46-year history. With performances from acts including Lizzo and Harry Styles, the hope is to “breathe new life into the ceremony, while also introducing a new and more engaged audience”, according to this year’s Brits chairman, Damian Christian, who is managing director and president of promotions at Atlantic Records.
But despite attempts at revitalisation, the 2023 Brits has been accused of perpetuating retrograde attitudes. This year’s best artist category – which replaced the gendered best male/female categories in 2022 – has been criticised for its all-male nominees: Central Cee, Stormzy, Fred Again, George Ezra and Harry Styles. Given the backlash, and in light of historically low viewing figures for last year’s ceremony, can the Brits recapture its relevance?
The British Phonographic Industry (BPI), which runs the awards, is confident about its new primetime spot. “Saturday night on ITV continues to bring in an audience of several million, and the Brits follows The Masked Singer, which is winning its slot and is aimed at the younger demographic,” said BPI chief strategy officer and interim CEO Sophie Jones.
The latest Ofcom figures show that broadcast viewing by 16- to 24-year-olds has dropped by two-thirds in the past 10 years. Additionally, the Brits’ viewing figures for all ages halved in the past decade, showing a bigger decline than the Baftas, and one worse than the overall all-ages viewing decline, said TV analyst Tom Harrington, of Enders Analysis. The BPI stressed the Brits’ engagement with young fans across social media and YouTube, citing 44m views across performances and highlights from the 2022 show on its official YouTube channel, in addition to viewing figures that gave ITVX its best single day of 2022 until Love Island started in June.
But these attempts to reach fans where they are may not be enough. Michael Cragg is author of the forthcoming Reach for the Stars: 1996-2006 – Fame, Fallout and Pop’s Final Party, which details the Brits coronations and disappointments of Y2K pop acts such as Steps. “Award shows need that sense of collective hysteria,” he said. “You could watch a funny acceptance speech on TikTok, but I’m not convinced that makes a solid connection between the Brits and the viewer. It’s just more content.”
These events, said Cragg, feel old-fashioned to Gen Z. “For younger fans, tribalism is all they’ve ever known online – so they are engaged in seeing if their faves can win. But that’s not something you have to sit through a two-hour show to find out. Just hop on Twitter.”
Isla, 16, is a paid-up Harry Styles fan from Edinburgh. While she is pleased that Styles – this year’s most nominated act, alongside Wet Leg – is getting recognition, she has never watched the Brits and doesn’t intend to. “It seems very long and has a lot of chat in between [awards].”
The BPI’s explanation for the all-male best artist category also sheds light on voting criteria that are out of step with youthful music consumption. To compete in the main (nongenre) categories, an artist must have achieved either a Top 40 album or two Top 20 singles in a 12-month window. Out of 71 eligible artists, only 13 were women or non-binary. This clear factor, said the BPI’s Sophie Jones, “may point to wider issues around representation in music that need to be addressed”.
Yet basing the awards on traditional performance metrics also elides how artists find their followings today, said Cragg, citing TikTok breakout star PinkPantheress. “She’s huge on streaming, becoming massively influential, collaborating with global acts” – from Skrillex to Willow Smith and US rap sensation Ice Spice – “and sells out tours.” But because she lacks those chart placings, “she wasn’t eligible for best artist”.
The favourable weighting of physical sales over streams in the charts means “a more established act who can flog enough physical product in one week to chart high in the albums chart, before dropping like a stone, is eligible above PinkPantheress,” said Cragg. “That feels bonkers. If the Brits are hoping to reach a younger audience, they need to acknowledge acts that have huge reach in different ways.”
Jones said the BPI “will review our processes for the next event in 2024, as we always do, to make sure we take on board any learnings and ensure our approach is the right one”.
In the period covered by his book Reach for the Stars, Cragg said, pop stars wanted to win Brits “because it was a shot at recognition that they weren’t getting elsewhere. It was pop versus indie, and winning offered credibility.” But two decades later, pop is taken seriously by critics and every popstar can reach fans directly online. What is a Brit award worth in 2023?
“It still has PR value, though it is less a long-term sales driver than a desired co-sign,” said a publicist for several Brit-winning UK pop acts. “If you win a Brit there is heightened belief within a label that other territories will engage more.” Artists still campaign around the Brits by “building to a crescendo in [their] ongoing release and touring plans that run parallel to the well-known voting window”, they said.
The Brits’ truest form of relevance, said the publicist, may be that “when you see uncertainty around the Brits, you’re watching the anxieties around the music industry play out on stage: how do we break British acts on a global scale? What does diversity, equality and inclusion look like within a label, or in the nomination process? Are pop stars so ‘online’ that they’re scared of doing or saying anything interesting?”
Yet that earnestness runs the risk of missing the point, they said. “You want the Brits to effectively dance like no one’s watching, and worry less about getting it wrong than recapturing some of the fun and chaos that made it a must-watch in the 90s. But if you’re nostalgic for what it was, you’re also probably not who the music industry is worried about right now.”
The Brit awards: the highs …
1990: the final public appearance of Freddie Mercury
Mercury made his last public appearance to collect the award for outstanding contribution to British music alongside his Queen bandmates. Looking gaunt, his only words were: “Thank you … goodnight.” He died just under two years later.
1996: Jarvis Cocker’s protest against Michael Jackson
In a prescient display, Cocker got up on stage and waggled his bum during MJ’s sanctimonious, child-flanked performance of Earth Song. Ironically, it was Cocker who was arrested (then cleared) on charges of assaulting three children during his stage invasion.
1997: the Spice Girls steal the show
The Spice Girls made their Brits mark thanks not only to Geri Halliwell’s’s union jack minidress (hastily fashioned from a tea towel) but Mel C offering to fight Liam Gallagher. Kudos, too, for Halliwell’s debut solo performance in 2000, in which she emerged from a giant pair of inflatable legs.
… and lows
2012: Adele getting cut off for Blur
Adele’s acceptance speech for best album (for 21) was cut off to fit in a live performance from Blur (whose frontman Damon Albarn would, years later, accuse her of being “insecure”). Adele flipped the bird to “the suits, not the fans”, and ITV apologised.
2014: Alex Turner’s “that rock’n’roll, eh” speech
It’s hard to tell whether the Arctic Monkeys frontman’s acceptance speech for best album (for AM) was fuelled by cocaine (he says not) or was an attempt at sleazy performance art. Either way, his defence of rock’n’roll – and extremely un-rock’n’roll suggestion that the Brits “invoice me” for the microphone he dropped – was excruciating.
The failures over equality
From #BritsSoWhite in 2016 – when no Black artists were nominated in a major category – to continuing gender inequality, the Brits have been relentlessly behind the progressive curve in the last decade.