The virtues of a Radio 2-friendly tune triumphed at the Brit Awards as Emeli Sandé and newcomer Ben Howard shared the top prizes on a night when singer-songwriters defeated pop acts aimed at the dancefloor.
The pop single is currently thriving with Rita Ora, Olly Murs, Calvin Harris and Jessie J selling millions of downloads.
But the annual music industry ceremony thumbed its nose at those teen-friendly Radio 1 favourites, rewarding instead artists whose song-craft gives them a shot at Grammy awards and Adele-style success in the United States. Getting on the playlist at Radio 2, which now has a record 15 million listeners, has made that station the most important tastemaker.
The ceremony, presented by James Corden and held at the O2 Arena, made amends for offending Britain’s two biggest-sellers last year.
At the 2012 awards Emeli Sandé was left in tears when organisers cut her Critic’s Choice winner’s speech from the show. The Scottish singer had prepared a brief “thank-you” but was devastated when Corden ignored her and instead asked Jessie J if she had any “tips” for the newcomer.
This time Sandé, 25, who gave up her medical training at the University of Glasgow to pursue a music career, was given centre-stage as she took the top award, Best British Album for her debut, Our Version of Events, and the Best British Female prize. Sandé, whose songs balance political issues with emotional soul-baring, was also invited to close the show.
“It wasn’t the best of experiences last year,” said the singer, whose debut album was the only 2012 release to sell more than one million copies.
Sandé, who performed at both the opening and closing Olympic Games ceremonies, and appeared at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, denied claims that she had been “over-exposed.”
“I actually haven’t done that much, but it’s just what I have done have been huge events,” said the star who jetted off to Hollywood after the awards to perform at Sir Elton John’s Oscars party.
Picking up the Damien Hirst-designed trophy from US star Taylor Swift, she said: "This feels amazing. This is incredible and and I'm so happy to win this award."
The organisers also made good last year’s snub to Adele, who thrust her middle finger at the cameras, in response to being cut-off in the middle of her winner’s speech. The singer won Best Single for her James Bond theme "Skyfall" and collected her prize by video link from Los Angeles, where she is preparing for the Oscars.
David Joseph, the Brits chairman, promised to “rewrite that wrong” with enough time allocated for the singer to thank whomsoever she pleased, even if it meant running into a commercial break.
The night’s surprise winner was Ben Howard, the acoustic singer-songwriter from Totnes, Devon, who took the Breakthrough Act and Best Male prize, defeating contenders including the chart-topping Rita Ora and Olly Murs.
Howard, who cites Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake as influences, built a grass-roots following, initially through the Devon and Cornish surfing fraternity and then social media.
Expanding his audience through intensive touring, Howard’s debut album Every Kingdom achieved platinum status without any of the hype or aggressive marketing used to “break” a new act. His Brits live performance, introducing Howard to millions of ITV viewers, is expected to give the album a major boost.
Howard is tipped to follow Ed Sheeran’s success in the US, and has announced a Central Park headline show for 5,000 fans in July after gaining huge acclaim when he supported folk-rockers Mumford & Sons on their tour.
This year’s awards reflected a breakthrough year for British artists in the United States, where four of the top five-selling albums of last year were by UK performers – Adele’s 21, Mumford & Sons' Babel and One Direction's two releases, Up All Night and Take Me Home.
Mumford & Sons, who stormed back to the Billboard No1 slot last week after winning the coveted Grammy award for Best Album with Babel, took the Best British Group award.
Collecting the award frontman Marcus Mumford said: "Thanks very much indeed. We weren't expecting that. I don't think we've really taken the opportunity to thank people who have come to our gigs."
The West London band defeated One Direction to the prize, on a poor night for X Factor-created stars. But the boyband was the beneficiary of a new Brits “global success” award for the UK artist which racked up the biggest international sales in 2012.
The quintet, fronted by teen idol Harry Styles, have sold over 14 million singles and 8 million albums and prompted scenes compared to “Beatlemania” in the US. Their Take Me Home album sold one million copies worldwide in its first week of release prompting Nick Gatfield, the head of Sony Music, to reveal that the band of 2010 X Factor runners-up was now a $50 million business.
Those hoping for a noisier, guitar-led alternative to the night’s succession of polite, Radio 2-friendly winners were left disappointed as rock contenders The Vaccines and new teenage star Jake Bugg missed out.
Rihanna, winner of the International Female category for the previous two years, handed over her crown to Lana Del Rey, the New York singer whose single "Video Games" introduced her “gangster Nancy Sinatra” act to a mainstream audience. Frank Ocean, the R&B singer who disclosed his bisexuality before the release of his Channel Orange album and garage-rock duos The Black Keys also won international categories.
Instead of an “Outstanding Contribution” award, the organisers gave a “Special Recognition” award to War Child, the charity which provides relief for children caught up in the world’s worst conflicts and has attracted artists including Radiohead, Sir Paul McCartney and Damon Albarn to donate exclusive tracks to its acclaimed fund-raising albums.
Muse opened the show, performing "Supremacy" with a 75-piece orchestra housed on three tiers against a backdrop of pyrotechnics and lasers.
Chris Wolstenholme, the Devon band’s bassist, told The Independent. “You’re going to be more nervous playing live at the show than you are for any gig. Your mum and grandparents are watching. There’s nothing worse than making a mistake and going ‘Oh God, I hope my grandma didn’t hear that.’”
One Direction gave the first live performance of their Comic Relief single, a medley of Blondie's "One Way Or Another" and The Undertones' "Teenage Kicks".
US country star Taylor Swift put together a fire and ice-themed set, while Justin Timberlake, Mumford & Sons and Robbie Williams, a former multiple Brits winner who left empty-handed this time, also performed.
Despite the back-slapping at the O2, the UK record industry is still struggling to make the transition from physical to digital music. Trade association BPI said combined sales of CDs and downloads fell by 11.2 per cent to 100.5 million in 2012, although a rise in fans using streaming services like Spotify is helping fill the gap.
Performers like Sandé and Howard, who play live, write their own material and have global potential, are seen as offering the best hope of an artist-led return to increased sales, even if their music and demeanour lacks traces of rock’s former “rebellious” spirit.
Although the Brits now aspires to be a showcase for music to compare with the Grammys, David Joseph said he would not ask star performers to emulate the US ceremony’s wardrobe restrictions banning “sheer see-through clothing” and exposed “buttocks and female breasts”.
“I would never ask anyone to dress in a certain way,” he said. “Artists should be allowed to be as free as they want in terms of their expression and fashion.”
2013 Brit Award winners:
British breakthrough act
British female solo artist
Mumford & Sons
MasterCard British Album of the Year
Emeli Sandé - Our Version Of Events
British male solo artist
Adele - Skyfall
Special recognition award
War Child charity
Brits global success (for international sales in 2012)
International female solo artist
Lana Del Rey
International male solo artist