Friday, Feb. 13, 2004
All businesses have their annual knees-ups, even staid bodies like the church (Christmas, etc). The rock'n'roll industry has the Brits. They are organised by the BPI (the British Phonographic Industry), which brings together all the major players. The BPI decides things like how much music costs, how many tracks constitute an album (nine), and what to do about music and the internet (nothing).
In a business where success has a lot to do with giving the impression of being successful, it's hardly surprising that, left to itself, the industry has allowed its own awards ceremony to gradually mutate into a grotesque and camp extravaganza. A flashing, spectacular orgy of celebrity and winners - just like a Grand Prix. The underlying sense is that there are so many awards ceremonies where rock stars are required, and the industry mustn't be outdone by any of them.
Winning an award is like being fancied: there is none too small to raise the spirits. Over the years I've come to learn that awards ceremonies tend to reflect the personality of the body they represent; the Brats, the NME's annual bash, is a messy, boozy thing, usually held underground. The Q awards start off tidy, get boozy and end in a bunfight (I once caught fire at the Q awards). GQ's are a kind of Park Lane slut goody-bag affair, in a nice way.
The Brits, being the industry awards, are traditionally a hell of a do. People in and around the music business don't need much encouragement to party, after all, and what are the most important ingredients of a really great party if not really great music and bona fide rock stars? Back in 1994 - the year Blur won four awards - they put an entire fairground into Alexandra Palace.
But those were more prosperous times for the record business, and the personalities of the prevailing talent definitely influenced proceedings. The mid-1990s was carnage, an out-and-out booze up. The bands prospering - like Blur and Oasis - were more unmanageable, so there was a genuine sense that something cataclysmic might happen.
Unlike operating heavy machinery or driving, music is often done best by people who are under the influence of something or other; not always, but the industry does attract people with excessive appetites, and it makes a virtue of bad behaviour. So the Brits used to have their fair share of drunken excesses (Jarvis Cocker mooning, or Chumbawamba drenching John Prescott with ice water). Not any more. Last year was the first alcohol-free ceremony, and when clean-living bands like Coldplay are picking up the prizes you'll find barely a whiff of rebellion in the air. Pop Idol has made the event more and more like a stage school.
There is certainly a sense that it has changed over the years to reflect the zeitgeist. Rather than the TV programme being about the party, the "party" is about making a TV programme. The first time I went to the Brits, I was incredibly flattered to be there. Now, when we get invited to awards ceremonies, we all just want to know if we've won or not. (It's easy to find out beforehand if you have. Plus, the cameramen approaching your table as the nominations are being read out is a bit of a giveaway.)
So who votes for the Brits? There is an academy of industry insiders, and I know these are well chosen because I've been given the vote myself in the past. There are thousands eligible to vote - mainly people who have won, senior industry figures, producers, media commentators, cronies and so on. Readers of that taste-making tabloid the Sun get a vote as well.
What is it that we're all voting for? Sales, traditionally; but is that really the best indicator of success? Is that really what we should be rewarding? The bands of the 1980s that influenced the bands of the 1990s - such as New Order, who have had a profound affect on American music, and the Smiths, the biggest influence on British bands - weren't the big sellers. Who would have thought in the 1970s that the music that would endure would be Chic and not Genesis. That's like saying Busted will outlive Radiohead.
As bad as the Brits are, the most tedious awards ceremonies are the American ones. There are endless categories, and the proceedings have a surprisingly overwhelming formality where every winner thanks everyone involved in their career, God, their parents, Biggie and everyone they've forgotten. Suddenly, all those badass gangsta muthas know how to sit still and not smoke and not drink alcohol and say thank you very much.
Least understandable, though, is the Mercury music prize, with its piffling purse and its pompous panel of five pipsqueaks. I don't know why anyone takes it seriously. Every year they nominate big names to get the publicity machine throbbing, and every year without fail hand the award to M People or some other stinker that no one ever hears again. We'd be much better off televising the reckless yahooing at the Brats or the salacious shenanigans at the Qs or the GQs - even Smash Hits for that matter. Then, at least, you get proper expert opinions (they're all voted for by the readers).
The Brits are in danger of becoming as disrespected as the Mercury, with its sudden and strange interest in the American compartmentalisation of music. This tactic is suited to the US where taste is compartmentalised (you would never hear Dido and Primal Scream on the same radio station, like you might on Radio 1 - it just doesn't suit the advertisers) but not for us. Yet this year, there seem to be a lot more categories at the Brits, including one for the music industry's latest love affair: "urban". What the hell is urban music anyway? What are we talking here - Coventry city centre? None of the artists nominated in that category has done much business, even in the context of the worst singles sales in chart history. This being the BPI, you will also notice that there is no prize for having a good website.
Since this is the music industry's own awards, I think their biggest mistake of recent years was to lose the best producer category. Given the chance of working with any of the stars of this year's show or any of the producers, I would definitely work with the producers; they are the people who make the records, particularly in America. The Neptunes are simply the modern equivalent of Stock, Aitken and Waterman.
British pop music today is so focused on its market. It's far less suck-it-and-see than it used be. More and more, we like to be told what the best thing is: there is so much choice, it's confusing, and we need a guide to help us. But music is simple: you listen to it and decide whether you like it or you don't. We're all music experts. Who can say that Coldplay is better than the Darkness with any authority?
People should use the internet to inform their purchasing rather than some superannuated arbitrary knees-up. The BPI have been shameless in their inability to embrace music technology. They should be leading the way here - where we need them - rather than fiddling around partying while Rome burns. Anyway, who the hell won last year?
A winning formula?
Norman Cook, DJ, won best dance act in 2001 and 1999, and best breakthrough act with the Housemartins in 1987
I think there's just award overkill at the moment the last few years. First there was just the Brits. Then there was Q, then DanceStar, then whatever else. The significance of the award is definitely weakened by the amount of them.
Having said that, the Brits is certainly the most important of those. But there is an award fatigue setting in. Over the past few years - at the Brits especially - more is done for the cameras than the music. And it's more schmaltzy and American. I've now won three awards; the first one was for the Housemartins and we didn't go on principle (I went to see Sheffield United v QPR - that was more important to me).
I haven't been for the past couple of years and if they're not serving alcohol any more, I'm definitely not going.
Lisa Maffia - singer, So Solid Crew, who won best British video for 21 Seconds in 2002
The trouble with the Brits is that they're not really the Brits any more. There are too many Americans performing. They need to make it more exciting, and introduce something new. They need to renew it in some way because it has stayed the same for years.
The Mobos have an unsigned act playing, so there's something unpredictable. All the Brits have is weird collaborations - they should do something a bit more creative than that. It's too industry. It looks very glamour and glitz on the telly but when you're actually there it's not as exciting as all that. In fact, it's more exciting to watch it on the telly.
Jo Whiley, presenter, Radio 1
The Brits are definitely in danger of being eclipsed by the MTV Europe awards. They seem to be able to make it altogether more starry and they seem to have a lot more pull.
The Brits organisers are having to work extra-hard to make the event work. Each year it's obviously increasingly more difficult to make that happen. They're so heavily reliant on people supporting it and when people like Dido don't [Dido will not be attending this year's Brits] they obviously feel shafted. Plus, it was definitely better when it was live.
At the MTV awards there's a sense of excitement as they count down to it going on TV. There's an unpredictability about it, and that's when the Brits is good, when there's a sense that something might happen. Having said that, it is a valid event and it would be a real shame if it stopped. The UK record industry desperately needs all the support it can get.
Mick Cooke - trumpet, guitar and bass guitar, Belle and Sebastian, who won British breakthrough act in 1999
It's been a few years since we went to the Brits, but we definitely had fun there. It was pretty astounding actually. We had heard rumours during the day that we might win but it wasn't until the night that we found out. We didn't really have anything to say, we went up and mumbled something. Afterwards it was crazy for a few days, but then it kind of died down.
The Brits are probably relevant in the same way as the Oscars are relevant - ie only as an industry set-up. But it's still entertaining to watch; every year there is some kind of scandal that puts it in the psyche of the British public. It just happened that the year we won, we were the scandal. We didn't cheat but I think our fans did. But the system allowed that, so it was bound to happen. A lot of our fans were very computer-literate.
Jamie Cullum, jazz singer, nominated for British breakthrough act and performer this year
The Brits are fun to watch, and that's all that matters. It's a mainstream, prime-time TV thing that people watch to see what the celebs are wearing (or that's why I watch them, at least). No musician should take awards seriously, anyway.
The Brits are about a healthy mixture of talent and record sales. I'm not a genre fan, so I'm not in favour of a jazz category to add to the urban category, because then it gets like the Grammys, with a category for everything. Jazz wouldn't fit into razzle dazzle. If I win, I'll be so surprised - it's voted for by Radio 1 listeners, for God's sake.
- The Brit awards will be broadcast on ITV1 and ITV2 on Tuesday.
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