LONDON — When David Joseph was first asked to take the creative reins of the 2020 BRIT Awards he gave organizers an unequivocal response. “I didn’t want to do it,” says the chairman and CEO of Universal Music U.K. and Ireland. “I told them, ‘I can’t plan something that I don’t want to go to. You’ve chosen the wrong person’.”
Undeterred, the British Phonographic Institute, the labels trade body that runs the U.K.’s biggest music awards show, came back and asked Joseph to reconsider returning as BRITs chairman – a role he previously held from 2011 to 2013.
Last fall, he agreed on two conditions. First, that it was a one-year-only appointment. And, second, that he could make widespread changes to the annual show.
For this year’s 40th anniversary edition, which took place at London’s The O2 on Feb. 18, Joseph boosted the number of performance stages from one to three, halved the number of TV commercial breaks and gave every artist, not just the big names, complete creative control over every aspect of their live performance.
The resulting show — which featured live performances from Billie Eilish, Celeste, Mabel, Harry Styles, Lewis Capaldi, Lizzo, Rod Stewart, Stormzy and Dave — met with widespread praise from the U.K. music industry, with many observers hailing at it as the best BRITs in years.
The BPI and the BRITs’ U.K. broadcast partner, ITV, initially hesitated when Joseph floated his proposals, he says, but they ultimately gave their full support.
“ITV realized that just doing the same [as previous years] would lead to fatigue and they are also very aware that in terms of the format, it faces challenges as a terrestrial TV show,” he says.
By cutting the number of commercial ad breaks from 13 in 2019 to just seven this year, Joseph and his team — which included executive producer Sally Wood, production designer Misty Buckley and director Hamish Hamilton — were able to lessen the stop/start nature that typically slows down televised awards shows and maintain a high-energy, fast-moving show via back-to-back performances.
“We agreed to have [commercial] breaks in the [telecast], but not in the room itself so they could capture the energy,” says Joseph. He also brought back a standing area in front of the main stage, packed with hundreds of young music fans.
In addition, the Universal executive reduced the number of executive tables on the arena floor from around 200 to 90 to allow for extra staging, a move that “definitely made me the most unpopular person in the industry for a period of time,” he jokes.
The all-important decision to grant performers complete creative control over their slots was born out of consultation with artists and artist managers.
“An artist just doing the same song you’ve seen [at other awards shows] or watched on YouTube a million times, has no real benefit,” he says. The only criteria for invited acts was that they really wanted to do it. “We didn’t want any reluctant participants,” he says.
Once the line-up was booked, artists were given 100% freedom to decide what songs they performed. Restrictions around how much time each performer was allocated were also relaxed, with each act offered a maximum of up to 15 minutes each, if they wanted it.
“I was very worried at one point that four artists were going to take 15-minute slots and I was unsure how to come back from that. Or tell ITV and the industry that only four artists would be performing,” Joseph says.
In the end, only Stormzy opted to take more than 10 minutes for his penultimate medley that included a guest appearance from Burna Boy. Stewart’s closing two-song set of “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” and The Faces’ “Stay With Me” lasted around eight minutes.
To establish the order in which artists performed, the creative team experimented with sequencing on playlists in the run up to the show. Joseph was keen that the younger artists such as Mabel and Lewis Capaldi featured early in the running in order to reduce their nerves.
Stewart, who closed the show by reuniting with Faces’ members Ronnie Wood and Kenney Jones, was a late booking that organizers made after he topped the U.K. albums charts with “You’re In My Heart” in December.
Joseph defended the booking, saying “there was nothing calculated about it… he was number one and he entirely deserved a slot on the show, and when we put Rod on the playlist it really worked.”
He concedes, however, that when he unveiled the initial performer line-up of Eilish, Celeste, Mabel, Styles, Capaldi, Lizzo, Dave and Stormzy to ITV, the broadcaster requested “more household recognizable names.'” The addition of Stewart to the bill pleased the broadcaster, he says, and complimented the showcase of young, mostly British talent.
The Universal boss praises ITV for broadcasting Dave’s headline-making performance of his track “Black” — which included a newly written verse criticizing the British government — in full and uncensored form. “That’s a very big give from a broadcaster,” Joseph says. “I am beyond respect for them for that.”
Another key change introduced for this year’s BRITs was a reduction in the number of awards to just 10 prizes, eight of which were given out on the night (the Producer of the Year and Rising Star awards were announced ahead of the main ceremony). In 2019, there were 14 award categories; in 2018 the number was 13.
“I thought there should be fewer awards and they would therefore mean more,” says Joseph. The introduction of genre awards, as given out at the Grammys and other international music award shows, didn’t enter into his thinking, he says.
“Running a record company, I see this extraordinary generation of new music fans wanting to go from Queen to Trippie Redd to Elton John to The Beatles to Billie Eilish to The Weeknd. From a BRITs’ perspective, I don’t think that audience sees their music taste just in one silo of a genre.”
The positive reception to the show, however, wasn’t enough to arrest a slight drop in TV ratings, which in line with an overall decline in linear TV viewing, fell to a peak audience of 4.4 million people, down from 4.8 million in 2019. The average TV audience fell to 3.8 million, from 4.1 million.
But digital consumption grew strongly. The show was live streamed globally outside the U.K. on YouTube and counted Amazon Music and TikTok among its digital partners. YouTube views of performances from this year’s Brits have surpassed 20 million, the most popular being Eilish’s live debut of her James Bond theme song “No Time To Die” (12 million views).
YouTube’s international live stream drew just over one million views, while TikTok’s red carpet coverage received 1.4 million views — the biggest-ever viewership for a global TikTok live stream out of the U.K. More than one million people also tuned into Amazon Music U.K.’s Twitter account to watch their live red-carpet coverage.
“The BRITs has become a truly multi-platform, global event reaching many millions of fans around the world,” says BPI chief exec Geoff Taylor. “It was a specific goal this year to achieve greater cultural and sales impact and we have made great progress towards that goal.”