The Media Column: The Brit awards reflect the state of a music industry in flux

Max Lousada, who chairs the Brits committee: 'Certain artists are starting to experiment but they are not necessarily doing it like The Clash did'

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The Independent Online

If there is a “conspiracy” to keep rock music out of this week’s Brit awards – a theory advanced by the overlooked band Kasabian – then it has certainly bypassed the executive charged with overseeing this year’s UK record industry showcase event.

“The Brits are the most democratic of all the awards,” argues Max Lousada, the chairman and CEO of Warner Music, who chairs the Brits committee and thus has responsibility for the creative direction of an event that prompts a feverish debate each year about the health of British pop and rock.

“There is an academy of more than 1,000 voters and only 20 per cent of those votes are from labels. If artists, managers, studio engineers aren’t voting for a certain band, it’s not a reflection of one genre, it’s a reflection of taste,” he said, adding that Kasabian, who topped the charts and headlined Glastonbury last year, have previously enjoyed nine nominations.

Wednesday night’s extravaganza at the O2 Centre will celebrate the multimillion selling achievements of Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith, Grammy-winning solo artists who have enjoyed global success, along with breakthrough acts such as George Ezra, Clean Bandit and Royal Blood, who hope to follow in their footsteps.

But the show takes place against the backdrop of a recorded music industry that fell another 1.6 per cent in value last year. Although streaming services are delivering major returns for hitmakers such as Sheeran, Warner’s golden boy, and Mark Ronson, they have yet to make good the lost revenue from the stark decline in iTunes downloads and CD sales.

The solution, perhaps an unusually honest one from a record executive, is to make better music. Lousada, 41, who began his career importing cutting-edge club records for DJs before heading up the New York hip-hop label Rawkus Records, said: “There have been a lot of records where fans felt they had been let down. Previously, you had to buy a record; now they can hear the music in advance and make a choice. The consumer has a shorter attention span and a fascination with the ‘new’, which doesn’t necessarily help sitting quietly in a room for 45 minutes listening to an album. People will experiment with the length of an album because time has sped up. How do you maintain loyalty with an audience which has no memory of a purchase relationship?”

Warner Music is beginning to solve the conundrum – total revenue rose 1.7 per cent, to $829m (£540m), during the last quarter, boosted by Sheeran’s X, the biggest seller of 2014. Physical sales actually rose by $20m, with a new Pink Floyd album finding an older audience of vinyl and CD buyers.

Yet, with no weekly mainstream music show on television since the demise of Top of the Pops, a performance slot on the Brits is highly prized by artists hoping to engage a wider, digitally distracted, audience. Artists – or labels – do have to pay to play.

“There are conversations between labels as to who is available to go on the show and who is willing to pay for an artist to go on because these are expensive productions to stage,” said the Brits chairman, who has secured an appearance by Taylor Swift.

“The big winners from the Brits previously have been the artists that have had less exposure. Royal Blood [the Warner-signed Brighton garage rock duo] will really see the benefit of performing alongside Madonna, Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran.” Lousada, who helped develop the careers of Muse, Plan B and Paolo Nutini, has brought in Es Devlin, the Olympics closing ceremony set designer, to bring a sharper “minimalist aesthetic” to the stage performances.

“It’s great Ed is going to give an exclusive performance of a new song,” he revealed. “You want unique moments and performances that haven’t been seen on mainstream television before.”

The Brits used to be synonymous with chaos but in recent years it has been criticised for becoming too slick. Ant and Dec, who take over hosting duties from James Corden, have been told they can abandon the autocue. Lousada said: “James did an amazing job, but I want it to feel live and spontaneous, otherwise it can become overly scripted.” The model is Stephen Fry. “He was amazing at the Baftas. His ability to engage and be comfortable and humorous is, I think, important for a live show.”

There will even be a front-row table seat for Noel Gallagher, who accused the Brits of being “rigged” and said he despaired of a world in which Sheeran could sell out three summer nights at Wembley stadium.

Warner’s role in elevating Sheeran from pub strummer to globe-straddling star was to “build a platform to allow him to perform great songs. Ed already had a determined vision about how he saw his career evolving. He’s a prolific songwriter and wordsmith”. Lousada’s job is often to tell stars which of the multitude of opportunities to reject, in order to avoid overexposure.

He does have sympathy with Gallagher’s plea for more politicised, working-class voices. “There’s generally a political apathy among young kids which is represented in music. Arguably, the last proper protest song was “Ill Manors” by Plan B (the Warner-signed rapper’s blistering assault on the Coalition after the riots), which came out of this building. Certain artists are starting to experiment but they are not necessarily doing it like The Clash did.”

Lousada, who secured a hotly tipped Rae Morris after tracking her down in a Blackpool fish ’n’ chip shop, points out that the heartfelt emotion of Adele or Sam Smith’s break-up songs are no less sincere than a political tirade.

Lucky indeed is the record company boss who finds The Magic Whip, the first new Blur album in 12 years, falling into his lap in Brits week, following Warner’s absorption of the famous Parlophone label. “It’s got that spirit of invention, energy, wit and sheer quality that sets them apart,” Lousada enthused. “Bands who can genuinely sustain a sense of excitement and evolution over 20-odd years don’t come around often.”

Peter Oborne may not like it, but the commercial genie is out of the bottle

When The Daily Telegraph ran a front-page  story suggesting that suicides at The Times could be connected to stress caused by commercial pressures at its parent company, it elevated an already bitter row over the necessary detachment between advertising and editorial departments at newspapers to a toxic new level.

Claims by BuzzFeed that the anonymous journalist given the task of writing the story did so under duress, gave the impression that the Telegraph was suffering some kind of collective nervous breakdown, lashing out at both the News UK title and The Guardian, as it sought to defend its journalism from the “O-bomb” dropped by its disaffected ex-chief political commentator Peter Oborne.

The Telegraph has denied Oborne’s claims that the paper had buried the HSBC scandal and other banking investigations for fear of losing valuable advertising contracts. But it has yet to “refute”, in its own words, claims by Press Gazette that its commercial department has developed an unhealthy influence over editorial and that a process by which stories are downgraded, softened or dropped has been the Telegraph’s “dirty little secret for some time”.

It is now normal for commercial staff to attend news conference and talk to reporters about stories, it is claimed. Were reporters discouraged from running critical articles about HSBC, shortly after Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, the Telegraph’s owners, secured a £250m loan from HSBC for a struggling corner of their business empire, as it has been claimed?

A vituperative Telegraph editorial accused a left-liberal cabal comprising the BBC, The Guardian and, oddly, The Times, of inflaming the HSBC tax scandal, a story the paper chose not highlight because of its belief in the propriety of the financial services industry. The Telegraph ran a story accusing The Guardian of changing a story about Iraq to appease Apple, when the technology giant bought prominent advertising space on its website.

The Telegraph is adamant that it will make no apologies for turning a £55m profit last year in an industry where its competitors struggle to break even or are subsidised by profitable tabloids.

It has pledged to produce guidelines “that will define clearly and openly how our editorial and commercial staff will co-operate in an increasingly competitive media industry, particularly in digital publishing, an area whose journalistic and commercial importance can only grow”.

So what is the appropriate relationship between commercial and editorial wings of a paper? Rufus Olins, chief executive of Newsworks, a marketing body for national newspapers that “helps agencies and advertisers get the most out of news brands”, said: “The relationship between advertising and editorial is one of interdependence, neither side could exist without the other. Each paper must make a judgement on a daily basis on where to draw a line with advertisers.”

Advertisers continue to target print media because newspapers retain a trusted relationship with readers, Olins said. However, competitive pressures, exacerbated by the online revolution, have eroded print revenues and given advertisers new opportunities to reach digital readers in formats where the lines between editorial and promotion are becoming blurred.

“Native advertising” – articles that take the appearance of editorial content but are actually paid for by brands, pioneered by BuzzFeed – are becoming commonplace across news websites. Much as he might like to return to a simpler era, Oborne cannot turn back the digital revolution. His underlying aim appears to be to foment unrest against Murdoch MacLennan, the Telegraph chief executive, who, he claimed, was “determined” not to allow negative stories about HSBC to appear in the paper.

Oborne’s allegations that HSBC is seeking to suppress press freedom by withdrawing advertising are, however, sufficiently serious to merit adjudication by an independent body. The press regulator Ipso has indicated it could step in if all parties requested its assistance.

Oborne may not be surprised to learn of an “exclusive partnership” between his former employers and Fox Searchlight to promote the film The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The deal covers “marketing, social and editorial activity” and “will build excitement ahead of the film’s release”, according to Andrew Pettie, head of arts and entertainment at Telegraph Media Group.

A Telegraph review of the film was headlined “unexpected and rewarding” although the paper’s critic appeared marginally underwhelmed with the three-star offering. A Telegraph Tours offer to stay in the rural Indian hotel used as the film’s location ran at the conclusion of the review