How important is the BBC in today’s pop climate?

For decades the BBC has played a central role in shaping the global pop landscape. But in a world of iTunes Genius and Spotify Discover, what is the corporation’s USP? 

Jamie Mackay
4 December 2015

Earlier this week the BBC announced its Sound of 2016 long list, featuring fifteen young artists selected by an influential cross-section of the British music press as representing the best of new British pop. The prize has helped springboard some of Britain’s most influential contemporary musicians including Adele, Ellie Goulding and Sam Smith. This year’s list, though, emerges at a particularly fraught time for the corporation. With its Charter Renewal just around the corner and £150m of budget cuts looming, this is an opportunity for the corporation to demonstrate its continuing relevance in the digitized music ecology. 

So to what extent does this year’s list showcase the uniqueness of the BBC? As a public service broadcaster the BBC is under pressure to uphold certain standards that are not necessarily true of commercial broadcasters. Music content on the BBC is never merely entertainment but always embedded within a ‘national culture’; a nebulous concept but one that the BBC perhaps more than any other institution is required to grapple with. When considering its contribution to music this means it must be judged according to what it does ‘in addition’ to the free-market that controls the industry more broadly. 

The BBC is not just a business and in theory at least no board of trustees and politicians should be able to dictate its fate. It belongs to all who pay the licence fee, and arguably several thousand who don’t. Certain questions can be asked of the Sound of 2016, then, that are bound up with this concept of public service broadcasting. Is the selection of a sufficiently high quality? Was it decided democratically? Do the artists reflect the diversity of the British music scene? Finally, does the list offer something that you wouldn’t find elsewhere, a form of organizing, an authority or a common space that isn’t present when scrolling through YouTube and Spotify?

On these fundamental checkpoints the Sound of 2016 scores well. The records are all produced to industry standards and cover genres that are currently developing into new and exciting forms. It was created by a combination of DJ’s, journalists, PR staff and online pollsters, with the audience voting mechanism enabling a ‘final’ level of public control. In terms of representation the list also performs well with 50% female and BME artists. From both the social media energy around the long-list and its coverage by other music magazines it is clear that the BBC still has some authority.   

There is something to please everyone but, perhaps more importantly, to challenge everyone. When talking about the BBC, this is not a subjective and individual point. While the terms ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture are constantly contested and rightly so, the BBC has an obligation to collapse this binary, ultimately offering something more than either narrow elitism or superficial populism. In the specific case of the long list, its claim on ‘the future of music’ demands that it try to make the avant-garde pop by publicising pop that is itself avant-garde.  

A few of the artists on this list fall short. Jack Garratt’s lead single, for example, is an incoherent collage of self-indulgent bleeps and retro snare hits, and while Frances has a great voice, her compositions are bland and unashamedly derivative of Adele. The most coherent experimenters are NAO, who combines ‘smokey neo-soul’ with glitch and electronica, and Mura Masa whose processed mews sound like no one else. Finally, my highly subjective favourite is Loyle Carner, a 20-year old rapper from South London who sings about urban melancholy, the pressures of adulthood and the death of his stepfather. His words are intimate and disarming, and in a genre dominated by swagger and bravado show that risk-taking doesn’t have to mean 15-minute synth solos and delay pedals.

Speaking on a panel for OurBeeb in 2012 Brian Eno described England as having “a more democratic culture of music […] than in almost any other country”, and cited the BBC as a key enabler in this. The Sound of 2016 admirably demonstrates a commitment to this history. But despite the perceptive editorial work, there isn’t the feeling that musical creativity is somehow centering around the BBC in the way that it should be. The sad truth is that while the winner of this award is likely to achieve at least moderate professional success, most of the artists on this list – including Loyle I suspect - will fall off the radar and straight out of the industry. 

Yet there is surely an opportunity for the BBC to do more to counter the dog-eat-dog culture of the music industry. In contrast to the X-Factor style format that is so loved by commercial channels, the corporation is well placed to provide prolonged exposure and support for artists, perhaps offering spaces from which collective movements might be born. Unlike BBC television which is now inseparable from an ultimately nationalist narrative about the decline of in-house production, the BBC’s music has always come from close communication with artists, labels and distributors around the world: the corporation does not produce in house and has always owed its existence entirely to collaboration with an ‘outside’ culture.

As Bill Thompson reminds us, despite spending the majority of its budget on media, the BBC is primarily a technology company. Today, in the post-broadcast age and in the specific context of music, this has a specific meaning, to enable a broad scope of creative interactions with sound. Imagine, for example, if the BBC were to set up free open-source sample libraries for home DJs and producers, for all who are frustrated by the industry’s mad copyright laws. It could set up digital lessons in music software, make plug-ins for LogicPro, organise remix competitions on AbletonLive. If the will was there the BBC’s role genuinely could be to enable a conversation between artists such as those on the long list, and others involved in making and listening to music.

The Sound of 2016 is an exciting confirmation of the BBC’s continuing relevance, and while the music itself is a mixed bag, the bag is undeniably well constructed. But while there is no doubt the corporation is good at making lists, it should not limit itself to being an amplifier. Post-broadcast music services are about enabling and empowering listeners to create new versions of their sonic world together, and not only as individuals. Embracing this would be groundbreaking for the BBC and for the music world more generally. Just as importantly, it would temper the callousness that inevitably accompanies popularity contests such as these.  

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