Poptastic! Night out at the Brits

Music biz folk will have good cause to party at this year's Brits awards, writes Jim White. Britpop is alive and well and making them a mint
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The Independent Online
The producers of the Brit Awards, the annual ceremony celebrating the best of British pop, are spending more than pounds 1m transforming Earl's Court on Monday night into one giant playground. There will be a bungee- jumping arena, a human gyroscope, white-knuckle fairground rides, bumper cars, endless bars dispensing endless free alcohol and a lengthy queue lining up in the gents behind Noel Gallagher of Oasis.

"We'll be singing and dancing till dawn," crowed Smash Hits magazine of their invitation to the beano. "Jealous? You should be."

When it comes to the dextrous ability to pour large amounts of alcohol down the throat while simultaneously slapping yourself on the back, the British record industry has few peers. And the Brits is the place to see it in action.

"Is any business done at the Brits?" said one senior record company executive. "You're joking. Everyone just heads straight for the toilets and then talks bollocks all night."

But this year, for the first time in more than a decade, there is more excuse for the frolics. The statistics issued by the British Phonographic Industry, the business's governing body, speak of growth in 1995 so muscular you suspect steroid abuse. Sales of records in Britain rose by more than 14 per cent compared with 1994; pounds 1.6bn was spent, which means that last year, on average, Britons spent pounds 30 a head on music.

It is a triumphant return to form for a business which in the early part of the decade was resembling the British motorcycle industry - a moribund operation increasingly reliant on creaking and outdated models such as the Clapton, the Collins, the John and the permanently garaged Michael. The decline in Britain's share of the world pop market was precipitous: 25 per cent of world sales were British in 1989, by 1994 the figure was down to 18 per cent. Meanwhile, album sales of British acts in America slipped from a peak of 20 per cent in 1984 to less than 15 per cent in 1994.

Last year, British performers accounted for 24 per cent of the world market and 17 per cent of US album sales. The bounce back has been fuelled by an unprecedented renaissance in the one area that had so recently been considered obsolete: teenage commercial pop, as manifested in the single.

For years the record industry had talked demographics, concentrating its marketing fire on an ageing record-buying population interested in the mellow sounds of adult-oriented-rock artists. Then along came Blur, Pulp, Radiohead and Supergrass, young lads with sun-wary complexions and stroppy attitudes unleashing a celebratory spending spree. Add to them Take That and East 17 with their armies of pheromone-discharging fans and the vibrant dance music scene led by M People, Tricky and Massive Attack, plus Oasis, the closest thing Britain has had to an all-conquering international supergroup since Led Zeppelin, and the British music industry had in its possession, as much by accident as design, a whole new product range. This is not to mention Robson and Jerome, the two actors from television's Soldier Soldier whose faithful rendition of "I Believe", the long-forgotten Bachelors number, was selling to the taste-free in numbers approaching 30,000 a day in the week before Christmas.

If the British record industry has been reborn, its big night out has been completely transformed in every department, ready to reflect the up-turn. Fifteen years ago the BPI Awards were spawned out of the British Rock and Pop Awards, presented in association with the Daily Mirror. Through the Eighties the event developed as something of a joke, a smug, black- tie occasion in which the gongs were divided by rote among the big record companies; a self-delusional reflection of an industry in decline. Every year it was predicted Phil Collins and Annie Lennox would win the top awards (and in 1986, 1989 and 1990 they did.)

Give or take the occasional bizarre appearance by Prince, escorted up to the podium to collect his prize in 1985 by two bodyguards the size of small housing estates, there was little worth tuning in to the BBC to watch. You could understand why the lead singer of EMF took a moment from miming to the single "Unbelievable" at the 1990 ceremony to inform the audience that they were the biggest bunch of fat cats he had ever seen. Except he didn't say cats.

After the nadir was reached in 1989 - when Mick Fleetwood and Samantha Fox co-hosted affairs in such an astonishingly amateurish manner they made Viz's Roger Mellie look like Des Lynam - the BPI decided to act.

"1989 was awful," says Lisa Anderson, the Brits' executive producer. "But in a sense it was very good for us. We really had to give it more thought."

"Let's not kid ourselves," says Bernard Docherty, the Brits' publicist. "The Brits are a marketing exercise designed to boost record sales in the most sluggish month of the year and the industry was singularly failing to make the most of it."

The man charged with major surgery on the showpiece was Jonathan King. Taking over in 1990, King motor-mouthed up the event for a couple of years, using his column in the Sun and any other vehicle that would give him time or space. His principal contribution was to change the name to the Brit Awards, or Brits, and remodel the gongs themselves into Oscar-like statuettes of Britannia.

But it was when Rob Dickins, chairman of Warner Music UK, took control in 1993 that credibility began, slowly, to attach itself to the event. Crucially, he altered the voting system, taking power away from the record company bosses and creating an academy of 500 industry insiders (some journalists, some retailers, some from the record companies). And he concentrated on the presentation of the show on television, turning the cameras away from the clinking glasses and on to the bands.

"We sold the show to ITV and they were paying substantial money for it," says Dickins. "So we had to deliver the audience. And to deliver the audience, it had to look great."

Malcolm Gerrie, who cut his teeth producing The Tube, Channel 4's Eighties pop show, was brought in to give the evening the kind of promotional-video style the artists felt comfortable with and record companies were encouraged to add to the production budget to make their own performers look even better.

"The Brits is a reflection, if you will, of a year's work," says Paul Berger, chairman of Sony Music, and of this year's Brits. "But no less significantly from the viewing public's perspective, it is possibly the one pop show they will watch. You do not waste that opportunity."

Indeed, once the show began to work, it acted as one big sales promotion: the Stereo MCs sold 30,000 albums in the fortnight after they won in 1994; the week after Blur scooped everything in 1995, sales of their output went up by 125 per cent.

"I think industry people saw the Brits as a bit of an embarrassment," says Rob Dickins. "Now they see it as an asset."

Which is certainly how Ian Broudie, of The Lightning Seeds, nominated in the Best Group category, sees it. "The Brits are not something I take terribly seriously," he says. "But I'm chuffed because it should mean more people get to hear [our single] 'Jollification'. Which is great."

This year a huge marketing exercise surrounding the Brits has been put into operation by record companies: 500,000 copies of a free Brits magazine were given away in record stores; 2.5 million stickers were printed with "Brit nominee" or "Brit winner" ready to be stuck to relevant CDs; Britannia Music Club has popped 40 million Brits-related leaflets into newspapers and magazines over the last fortnight.

"The Brits used to be just a party with a few artists playing and then the cameras nosing in as an after-thought," says Lisa Anderson. "Now it is a confident reflection of a confident industry. And if you want one statistic that proves that it's turning into an event of worldwide significance, it's this. Five years ago we had 25 journalists reporting on it from a little room backstage. This year there will be over 300, as well as more than 25 foreign television crews."

What we will see on our television screens on Tuesday night (the BPI like to take 24 hours to edit out any bloomers) is a confident and cocksure reflection of a confident and cocksure industry. But for many of the 4,000 inside Earls Court on Monday night, it will be the party that counts.

"No we're not going to perform," said Noel Gallagher in answer to a question put to him at the press conference to launch this year's event. "There's a free bar. We're not going to do a number and miss that, are we?"

The movers and shakers on pop's high table

There will be 4,000 people in Earls Court on Monday night for the Brit Awards. Nine hundred will be standing, hunkering down round the stage in an attempt to create a patina of concert-style atmosphere. This group will be made up of students from the Brits Music College (the principal charity benefiting from the show) plus prize-winners from various magazine competitions.

The other guests will be seated in tens at dining tables bought by companies ranging from MTV and The Hard Rock Cafe to Ticketmaster, which has paid pounds 5,000 per table. Which organisation will be seated where is a closely guarded secret, only to be revealed as guests arrive.

"Can you imagine what would happen if we let the seating plan out in advance?" says Lisa Anderson, Brits executive producer. "I'd be flooded with calls saying: 'Don't you know who I am? I demand a table at the front'. It would be worse than organising a wedding."

Record companies buy up the bulk of the tables, and the floor-plan will be dominated by the big four (EMI, Sony, PolyGram and Warner) which together account for 70 per cent of British record sales. Guests will be able to divert themselves by indulging in a bit of kremlinology, spotting who has been invited by - or snubbed by - whom.

"It used to be much easier allocating tickets five years ago, because most of our artists didn't want to come," says Rob Dickins, chairman of Warner Music UK which has bought nine tables.

"Now they do, and obviously they need to be accommodated, so it's much more delicate deciding who comes from the office."

And sometimes you can't be entirely certain whom you have invited. On Monday night, two organisations think Tina Turner will be their guest of honour. Since she can't be on two tables at once, bread rolls may fly.

Chris Evans, Radio 1 presenter

Presenter of the Brits and the most listened-to DJ on British radio. Recently rumoured to have turned down a pounds 1m deal to continue presenting Radio 1's breakfast show.

Rob Dickins, chairman, Warner Music UK

Former Brits chairman, 1992-95. He is the man widely credited with reviving the event by changing the voting system to stop undue influence from record company bosses. Eight nominations, all foreign artists.

Matthew Bannister, controller of Radio 1

Despite falling ratings, Radio 1 remains the most influential radio station in the British pop world. Getting your artist on Bannister's playlist can still be the first step to a gold disc on the boardroom wall.

Brent Hansen, president, MTV Europe

MTV is the channel that popularised the pop video. Hansen's satellite station, with a market worth pounds 6bn last year, is particularly important in Europe. Sales in Germany alone topped pounds 2bn. No longer is it a joke to be big in Munich.

Paul Burger, chairman of Sony Music UK

Chairman of the Brits. His organisation has five nominations for awards, including Lightning Seeds and Leftfield. But, just as importantly, his star act, Michael Jackson, will perform at the event.

Jean-Francois Cecillon, president of EMI UK

EMI is soon to demerge from its Thorn electronics sister company. It boasts, through a variety of subsidiaries including Parlophone, nominations for Eternal, Supergrass, Radiohead, Vanessa-Mae, Shara Nelson and Blur.

Brian McLaughlin, MD of HMV UK

He is responsible for 20 per cent of the UK music retail market. Research shows that, thanks to seductive modern record-store layout, shoppers find it almost impossible to leave with only one item; most buy at least two CDs.

Roger Ames, chairman of PolyGram

Through its subsidiaries Polydor and Island, the PolyGram conglomerate boasts 13 nominations, including those for Pulp, Tricky, Cast, Van Morrison and PJ Harvey.

Putting On The Brits

Pat yourselves upon the back Congrats to you all. Now the nominations from Those outside the hall:

Favourite British singers? Robson and Jerome. Winners on the telly, Popular at home, Sold a lot of records, Shifting units still, Will they get a Brit then? Shouldn't think they will.

Favourite British single? Should be Simply Red. Single was a blinder Must have made some bread. Roared into the pop charts Hit the cherished spot Will it get a Brit then? Very likely not.

Favourite British pop group? Got to be Take That. Made a lot of money Paid a lot of VAT. Popular with teenies Sing as well as dance Do they get a Brit then? Very slender chance. Last of all some Brits who Sold a lot abroad, Four point something million Must win some award? Music mags ignore them, Radio airplay none. Discs outsell Oasis, Stateside, ten to one. Do they get a Brit then? Will they get a push? No they won't ... and anyway, Who the bleep are Bush?