LONDON —Throughout its five-decade history, the Brit Awards, the U.K.’s biggest music awards show, have produced many headline-grabbing moments — from Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker wiggling his butt at Michael Jackson in 1996 to Adele flipping the bird at TV executives for cutting off her acceptance speech in 2012 — and featured unforgettable performances from Amy Winehouse, Stormzy, Dave, Kanye West and the Spice Girls.
But like other entertainment awards shows, such as the Grammys and Academy Awards, the Brits are being forced to radically reinvent themselves to combat falling TV ratings and retain relevance with young music fans. Last year’s ceremony was watched by 2.7 million television viewers in the U.K., down from 2.9 million in 2021 — the Brit’s lowest-ever TV audience, according to industry publication Broadcast.
Harry Styles, Wet Leg Top 2023 Brit Award Nominations (Full List)
To try to arrest that slide, this year’s show at London’s O2 Arena takes place on a Saturday night for the first time in the Brit Awards’ 46-year history.
“There’s been a desire [within the industry] for the Brits to be on a Saturday night for some time,” says Sophie Jones, chief strategy officer and interim CEO of labels body BPI, which runs the Brit Awards. “This year the pieces of the jigsaw fell into place, and it feels like a very exciting premium place for us to be.”
As in previous years, the two-hour show will be broadcast live on ITV in the U.K. The U.K. version of The Masked Singer, which is broadcast in the slot that precedes this year’s Brit Awards show, attracted 6.3 million viewers to last year’s season finale, according to ITV.
Outside the U.K., the 43rd edition of the show (The first ceremony took place in 1977, though the Brit Awards didn’t become an annual event until 1982) will be livestreamed internationally on YouTube for the 10th consecutive year, while a 60-minute red carpet show hosted by Nella Rose and Michelle Visage will be streamed on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The Brit Awards’ other digital partners include TikTok, YouTube Kids, Vevo and fan engagement platform Filmily.
Social media and digital platforms have enabled the Brit Awards to reach a far larger and younger global audience than it has ever reached on terrestrial television, says Jones. She points to 44 million views on the Brit Awards’ official YouTube channel for 2022’s performances and highlights, with more than 1 million people watching the accompanying red carpet show — marking a 25% jump from the previous year. Last year also saw 1.6 million visitors to BRITs World on Roblox.
The show’s continued importance to the U.K. record industry is illustrated by the spike in sales that winning acts and performers often experience. In the four days following 2022’s event, audio streams of songs performed on the night collectively increased 55% with 3.3 million additional streams, according to BPI data tracking. The highest uplift was for Ed Sheeran’s “The Joker and the Queen,” which saw a 699% increase in post-show streams.
“The shared experience moments that awards shows create are really special and the Brits still does that,” says Jones. “It’s a really important calling card for how much talent there is in the U.K.”
Lack Of Female Artists Sparks Backlash
In addition to battling falling TV viewership, the Brit Awards have increasingly found themselves caught up in controversies of their own making. This year’s nominations provoked a fierce backlash from artists and fans when they were announced on Jan. 12 because no female artists were named in the gender-neutral best artist category.
BPI says the lack of female nominations is a result of the strict eligibility criteria and relative shortage of high-profile British female stars putting out new music in 2022. The Brit Awards scrapped best male and best female awards last year in favor of gender-neutral prizes.
To be eligible for the best artist prize, an artist must have achieved at least one top 40 album or two top 20 singles in the U.K. over a 12-month period. Out of the 71 U.K. stars eligible for the award, only 12 were women — a list that includes Charli XCX and Florence + the Machine.
From that 71, a panel of around 1,200 voters — made up of artists, industry executives, journalists and retailers — pick their top five in order of preference. This year’s five nominees are Harry Styles, George Ezra, Stormzy, Central Cee and Fred Again.
“Clearly, it’s disappointing not to see any women nominated in the new gender-neutral category [but] it’s important we recognize the process by which those decisions are made,” Jones tells Billboard. She says that compared to 2022, when Adele won best artist and women or female-fronted acts won 10 out of 15 awards, the past 12 months have “seen fewer high-profile female artists within the release cycle and that has played itself through in the qualification list.”
In the wake of this year’s backlash, Jones says BPI will conduct a post-show review of its nominations criteria, eligibility thresholds and voting processes “looking at different potential approaches… to make sure that the awards are fully representative and celebrate success.” She says there are no plans to return to male and female categories for the best artist award but adds that nothing is “off the table.”
“Everything is in the mix, and it would be right and proper of us to think about this from all angles and make sure that we are making the right decision, whatever that might be,” says Jones.
Despite the all-male best artist list, organizers point to the high number of female artists in the running for other prizes on Saturday night. They include alternative rock band Wet Leg, who received four nominations; Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, both nominated in the international artist and international song categories; and Nova Twins, who are competing against Arctic Monkeys, The 1975, Bad Boy Chiller Crew and Wet Leg for best group. In total, 42% of this year’s nominations went to female artists or female-fronted bands, compared to 46% last year, says BPI.
The London-based organization previously became embroiled in controversy in 2016 when no Black artists were nominated in any major categories, provoking the viral hashtag #BritsSoWhite. Since then, BPI says there have been widespread changes to its voting academy, which this year was made up of 52% women and 31% from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds.
A nine-person Brits Committee — made up of two-thirds women, highlights BPI — oversees the Brit Awards. This year, Damian Christian, managing director of Atlantic Records U.K., makes his bow as committee chair, replacing Polydor’s Tom March who held the role in 2022. (Each of the three major labels takes turns leading the committee, rotating every three years.)
Those structural reforms have helped make the event far more representative of the U.K. music scene, say organizers, with recent editions seeing hip-hop stars Stormzy, Dave and Little Simz take home major prizes and deliver some of the event’s most-talked-about live performances.
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