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2018 IN THE U.K.

An Industry in Midstream

This year will perhaps be looked back upon as a period of transition for the U.K. music business, which has been coming to grips with how to break local artists in the streaming age, while suffering from a lack of blockbuster albums. The most recent truly global success stories to have broken out of Blighty—Ed Sheeran, Adele, Sam Smith, One Direction—did so in the download era. Dua Lipa, who is currently 12th in the world on Spotify, is so far the only act to have broken on streams, which took years of heavy lifting and persistence from Warner Bros. and TaP Management. The jury’s out on who’s next.

Streaming has rendered the U.K.’s ability to break an artist globally tougher than ever, thanks to increased international competition, a song-centered economy and fewer routes to market. Insiders say it now takes three years to get to a point that would have previously taken nine months to a year.

There are complaints over a lack of space for British acts on the big U.S.-based playlists, and Spotify and Apple Music are more powerful than Radio 1 ever was, where Zane Lowe was for years a key champion of mainstream acts. With Lowe now helming the waves at Beats 1, it’s vital that there’s a strong U.K. playlist team at streaming services that champions homegrown artists, and acts as the link between Blighty and the U.S. As of today, the local teams at the respective streaming services have a tendency to operate in silo, and playlist preference will naturally be given to those signed to local labels. Which is perhaps why a few new British talents of note signed with U.S. majors first—Ella Mai (Interscope), Freya Ridings (Capitol) and Jade Bird (Glassnote).

The result of the changing market is U.K. labels committing to developing few artists long-term and looking at territories outside of the U.K. and the U.S. to build an international success story. Polydor co-President Tom March points to Ramz hitting #1 in Germany and a new developing band of his who are selling out arenas in the Philippines. Meanwhile, Columbia boss Ferdy Unger-Hamilton discussed chart success with George Ezra in Austria, Belgium and Holland when we interviewed him recently. In fact—despite Ed Sheeran being the only British act on the IFPI’s Global Top 10 last year—a recent U.K. Music report said exports of British music soared in 2017 by 7% to £2.6 billion ($3.25b).

While there’s been no big British breakout story in 2018, the local market is healthy and diverse. Homegrown acts George Ezra, Anne-Marie, The 1975, Take That and Arctic Monkeys have enjoyed Top 5 albums, and the independent scene is strong with new talent including Rex Orange County, Dave, Jade Bird, Bruno Major and Jorja Smith. The local urban market has also exploded—but on a global platform where U.S. hip-hop rules, will those acts make a mark internationally? Stefflon Don signing to QC and Skepta featuring on A$AP Rocky track “Praise the Lord” suggests there’s potential.

Elsewhere in the British business, a leveling of the gender balance at the top is a priority after gender-pay-gap figures revealed just how few women are in leadership (and bonus-earning) positions. Over the last year, there’s been a number of key promotions, and HR are working to close the “gap” moving forward—companies with more than 250 employees are required by law to publish their figures every year, which is hugely positive news for the industry.More diversity at all levels equals more diversity in decision-making and artist development, and ultimately wider mass appeal.

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