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BEEB BRAIN DRAIN

BBC Radio 1 is being hammered with criticism for its failure in recent months to develop new U.K. acts, which it is mandated to do as a government-funded public-service broadcaster. Much of the criticism is emanating from artist representatives and their labels, who say they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Indie labels in particular are becoming increasingly confident that they can do it without Radio 1’s support. Major labels, by contrast, still depend on that big look from radio to drive the mega-numbers they need.

Many believe the root of the problem lies with a total lack of leadership after the departures of longtime Head of Music George Ergatoudis and star DJ/talent hunter Zane Lowe, leaving a gaping hole at the Beeb’s flagship station—once the home of new music. Lowe is making elephant bucks heading Apple Music’s Beats 1, but he hasn’t really moved the needle since launching the station 18 months ago. Ergatoudis, meanwhile, has been keeping a relatively high profile as Spotify’s Head of Content Programming for the U.K., enthusiastically championing the streaming service for its ability to break a diverse range of acts (see this interview with HITS from late last year).

Jason Carter, erstwhile head of the Beeb’s new talent strand Introducing—widely credited across the industry for providing a stepping stone to alt-J,Bombay Bicycle Club, Catfish & The Bottlemen, Jake Bugg, Florence and the Machine, Slaves and many more—recently exited for Amazon after 20 years. It’s also pertinent to note that those working in the BBC tend to stay in the BBC; new vacancies are generally filled by insiders, resulting in a complacent workforce and little opportunity for fresh talent and ears to shake up the status quo. Five out of six vacancies in the Radio 1 and 1Xtra music team left by producers exiting for positions at Spotify and Apple Music were filled internally by Ergatoudis' replacement, Chris Price (with one yet to be appointed).

"I think the criticism comes from those who have moved on to other platforms, and the BBC are such an easy target," a top label exec says, "but boy do we need them. They spend more time focusing on new U.K. talent than anyone else in the industry."

The latest Rajar figures show a radio station in decline: BBC Radio 1’s weekly reach slid for the fourth consecutive quarter to 9.562m listeners in Q4 2016, which is thought to be the lowest audience figure ever. Some in the industry are looking to Global's commercial radio brands Capital/Heart/Kiss—stations whose playlists generally followed, rather than dictated, the charts—to now make the hits. Others have full confidence in Price and team. A top label exec tells us: "I think the criticism comes from those who have moved on to other platforms, and the BBC are such an easy target, but boy do we need them. They spend more time focusing on new U.K. talent than anyone else in the industry."

There are efforts being made within the station to return to its former taste-making glory, including a mandate to play more British acts with a commitment to playlisting three singles for up to six new U.K. acts. The first cohort of those acts has been revealed today: Stormzy (indie with a Warner distribution deal), Anne-Marie (Atlantic), Declan McKenna (Columbia), JP Cooper (Island), The Amazons (Fiction) and Sampha (Young Turks). The list has already been hit with criticism for being too safe, and questions have rightfully been raised over why acts like Anne-Marie and Stormzy, who are both household names in Blighty, need the backing of the Beeb as "new" talent. In addition, a BBC music discovery streaming service, which makes the 50k tracks the BBC broadcasts each month available to listen to online for a limited period, has been in the works since September 2015 but has yet to arrive. It remains to be seen what the exact point of such a service would be in a world with Spotify, when tracks are on "sale" as soon as they air.

There was just one British act in BBC Radio 1’s Top 10 songs played last year (“I’m In Control” [Island] by Aluna George f/Popcaan), with another 17 in the Top 50, which was 36% British overall. Of those 18 U.K. acts, nine fall under the Beeb’s “new” category with no album yet released. 

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