'We don't want any artist to be excluded': A conversation with the man behind the diversity push at the Brits
When Stormzy managed to chart with a freestyle recorded in a park, and even had a strong push for Christmas number one with it, people expected mainstream recognition.
But the south Londoner's name was conspicuous in its absence from the list of Brit Awards nominees, along with any grime artists and, in fact, any people of colour. The backlash against the Brits was swift, with #BritsSoWhite taking over Twitter and media coverage.
The awards has just announced a refresh of the academy for 2016´s show, making the gender split more equal and bringing in a much higher percentage of music industry experts from BAME backgrounds. We caught up with the chairman of BPI, the company in charge of the Brits, Ged Doherty.
So, this diversity push came about after a conversation with Stormzy?
Yep, that's correct. I'm happy that we've got this opportunity to explain to people what the Brits academy is and how it works. A lot of people think the Brits are decided by the chairmen of the major record companies in a dark, smoky room one night when no one is looking. They think it's a bit of a fix. But the truth is it's well over a thousand people who are music experts from all across the industry, and they're the people who vote every year.
Every year we change about 300 people off that list to keep it fresh, but this year we invited more than 700 people, after we had a reaction from a few artists - Big Narstie, Stormzy was one and various others - who made comments earlier this year when they were unhappy that grime artists had not been reflected in this year's nominations, particularly in the British Breakthrough category.
That gave me the opportunity to speed things up based on that feedback. It's stuff we were doing anyway, but I wanted to speed it up.
Yeah, I was going to ask whether you feel this should have been done sooner.
With hindsight it's always easier to say, but until the nominations come out you never know what people are voting for - and nor should we, because then it would be a fix if I knew exactly who was going to get nominated.
The Brits every year reflects the best in music in the previous year, and in my opinion the Brits normally get it right. Every year we get criticised by somebody, one year it was dance acts, one year it was rock acts, this year it's been grime acts.
Actually after all the comments earlier this year I put together an advisory panel from all across the industry. There was 25 people including some DJs, some artists, journalists, from all across the industry, so that one; I could show people we were being transparent about what we were doing, two; to get thoughts and ideas from other people so it wasn't just me and the BPI who were doing it.
That's worked really well because we were able to use them as a sounding board. For example, we had one this year 'should we have a best grime award'? One of the artists I spoke to, and the people on the advisory panel, were like 'absolutely not, if you fix the academy, the academy should recognise the artists that are coming through', therefore those artists will be eligible for Best British Breakthrough, Best Male, Best Album, all those kind of things. As opposed to giving an award that is tokenistic.
So there's been 718 people brought on...
Yep 718 new invites. We normally invite about 1200 people each year because what happens is of that 1200 normally around 1000 say yes, so there's always a minimum of a 1000 people who vote, and as I said we normally have about 300 we refresh that with every year.
But this year we've invited 700 new people so I can get the gender split a lot closer to 50/50 male female, which is what I promised earlier this year, and also to get a minimum of 15% from the BAME community. BAME as Jamal and I were talking about the other day is a word we both hate, or a term we both hate. Of the invites it's 48% female 52% male, we didn't quite get there with 50/50 in one go. And it's 17% BAME. Providing all those people accept and say yes they want to be part of the academy, then that's what that will hopefully reflect.
Were there challenges in choosing those people?
(Laughs)... There were challenges in choosing those people, because a lot of us like the path of easiest resistance. And some people are like 'it's just too difficult to get 50/50 male female'. One area that stood out in particular was the producers area, because producers tend to be male - don't ask me why - but more so than any other part of the industry that seems to be male dominated. So we kept having to go back to them saying give us more females, give us more females, give us more people from BAME.
Eventually we got there, or we would take some male numbers off there and add more female on to media for example to balance it out. Even on the media it was tricky, actually. I'm very happy with where we've got to so far.
In terms of the other people who were already part of the academy, does this mean you've had to get rid of a lot of people?
It does, and I was joking with somebody about this on Friday - I'm going to be taken off a lot of people's Christmas card lists. I'd gone through the list myself and taken off a lot of people who I felt it was time for them to make way for somebody else.
But also, people have been very good natured about it, I even had emails from people who I've known for a long time, like 'Ged I've known you for a long time, I've been in the music business for a long time, it's brilliant what you guys are doing, I'm happy to stand down and make way for somebody younger'.
People have really embraced what we're trying to do.
Even though you've gone to all this effort, there's still no guarantee that any of the nominations will be different?
(Laughs) There's no guarantee whatsoever. I'll be nervous come January. My hope is, and logic would tell you, that something should change. And again this is something we debated a lot with the advisory panel, 'what happens if we do all this and nothing changes?'. I'm like, well, we'll have to go back to the drawing board and figure it out again.
My job as the Chairman of the BPI, the organisation that runs the Brits, is for the long-term strategy of the show, and I want to make sure the show is relevant in 10/15 years time.
So this is something we'll be doing on a regular basis to make sure the academy reflects the diverse society we live in. Providing I get the academy right, logic would dictate that some artists who you could argue may have been missed this year, won't be next year.
When the nominations came out last year were you expecting a backlash?
Yes. (Laughs) Being honest with you. I remember seeing the list and I was like 'oh dear'. I took over at the BPI about two years ago and this work was something we'd been looking at anyway at the academy, and it's something we were doing behind the scenes, but I remember seeing the nominations come out and saying to a couple of people 'oh my goodness, we're going to get some flak'. And we did.
There was no point in hiding from that, or pretending or making excuses. That's why I put up my hands, I wrote a letter in the Guardian in February of this year, saying yeah, we need to do something about this, and we need to do something about it now. Which is why I'm thrilled that we've made the announcement that we've made these changes, we've done all this, we've taken on board what people have said, we made a real effort to change things. I hope and pray that come January that it's reflected in the nominations.
Is Stormzy eligible this year?
Shut Up missed the nomination period by one week last year, which is unfortunate. The nomination periods closed last year on December 12, because we have to close by a certain date, because allowing for Christmas we've got to allow people time to count the votes.
Shut Up charted on December 19, after he appeared before a boxing match. So he missed it by one week, and so when I explained that to him he was like 'oh wow, maybe I shouldn't have said anything'. I was like 'no I'm glad, it's not your fault you didn't know', independent labels don't know what the cut off dates are or how it all works.
A lot of grime artists have come up and established themselves outside of the established record business. The established record business knows what the dates and rules are, but a lot of these new labels don't, and that's why I want to use this opportunity to reach out to those labels and say this is how it works. We want to include everybody, we don't want any artist to not feel included. When I explained that to Stormzy he completely got it and completely understood.
The good news is, he will be eligible for this year because Shut Up charted on the first week of this year's nomination period.
We've had a great response this morning from all across the artist community, saying it's brilliant what you're doing. A few artists have emailed me or texted me saying well done, respect, and it's exciting that somebody's taking this seriously and making these changes.
The Brits take place on February 24.