The New Noise Bubble: Are Critics' Choice Awards For New Artists A Blessing Or A Curse?

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to place a bet on James Bay selling a few albums in 2015. The lachrymose Hertfordshire singer-songwriter won this year’s Brits Critics’ Choice award, and is tipped to win the BBC Sound of 2015 poll next Friday. He also figured in several other ones-to-watch lists at the end of last year, including the influential MTV Brand New and the Red Bull Launched List. While it’s no guarantee of success, it would be surprising if Bay’s fledgling career didn’t receive a substantial uplift, much as last year’s Critics’ Choice/Sound of 2014 winner, Sam Smith, did. And that’s because these awards have ceased to be a sampling of the musical trends; instead they’ve become the crucial first step in marketing a new artist, to such an extent that getting on the tips lists has almost become an end in itself.

Breaking a new artist has always involved both calculation and luck. Record companies can’t predict which new acts will strike a chord with the public, but they can try to secure the widest possible exposure, and these days nothing equals the burst of attention that comes with being nominated in (or, better yet, winning) one of the key polls. The annual next-big-thing lists are now such a stepping-stone that a nomination is a major aim of many artist-development campaigns. A nod from Sound of, Critics’ Choice or even the indie-leaning UK Blog Sound can be worth more than months of touring and thousands of Facebook “likes” – it’s even claimed that by industry insiders labels will concentrate their investment on those artists they believe have a chance of getting on to the big lists.

“It’s very important for a new act to get into year-end polls, because it gives somebody a head start,” says an industry insider, who wants to remain anonymous. “All of a sudden people are looking at you and listening to the music and your picture is everywhere, and the media is picking up on it, and it becomes a self-fulfilling thing.” That is exactly what’s happening to Bay (who declined to be interviewed for this article): he’s been releasing tracks and gigging tirelessly for 18 months – supporting John Newman and Tom Odell on tour, and even playing on the catwalk at a Burberry fashion show. Yet it wasn’t until the Critics’ Choice win that the public really took notice, because it’s one of the only ways for a new act to push through what Brits chairman and Warner Music CEO Max Lousada calls “the noise bubble”.

“There are so many routes and platforms now, but there are fewer and fewer windows to get your artist widespread exposure,” he says. “At least this allows a slightly clearer conversation between artist and fan.”

“Noise bubble” is certainly the word for it – the enthusiasts who predicted that the internet would democratise music clearly didn’t foresee a future of plodding through dozens of homemade YouTube versions of Call Me Maybe in search of things worth hearing. Sound of (launched in 2003), Critics’ Choice (2008) and the others sift through the endless churn of new faces and, with luck, pick some of the best.

While Critics’ Choice invariably tips major-label acts – Bay and this year’s runners-up, George the Poet Years & Years, are all signed to the Universal Records conglomerate – Sound of … goes for both mainstream and leftfield; one of this year’s shortlisted artists, Croydon MC Stormzy, is still unsigned. Both lists, though, are much scrutinised by the media, resulting in the kind of publicity money can’t buy. George the Poet, aka 23-year-old Londoner George Mpanga, who is on both lists, is delighted that his politically charged songs are connecting: “If it makes people aware of me, it’s got to be good. I don’t feel burdened with expectation. It is what it is.”

Record companies start planning their campaigns months in advance, after deciding which of their new signings has the best chance of featuring on one of the lists. “If you have one mad experimental act and one pop act, the one you’re going to push for is the pop act,” explains the industry source. “You keep it quite focused. Suppose you want Artist X to win Critics’ Choice – you put your resources into that, you go in hard. You can find out who’s voting and try to target them.” (“Targeted” voters will receive MP3s and showcase invitations, rather than the mythical briefcaseful of cash – I vote in both the Critics’ Choice and Sound of … and have never been offered anything more illicit than an advance copy of a CD.)

But before a label will plough its energies into a campaign, the act needs to have started to connect with the public. A track will be released online, say, and if it gets mentioned on the influential blog aggregator Hype Machine, or appears in the Shazam chart, which counts the number of times a song is “recognised” by the music identification app, it starts to gain traction. That’s how Bay did it. His early tracks received spot plays on Radio 1, which in turn pushed them to the top of the Hype Machine chart. “If that keeps happening,” says the source, “it’s a fair bet this is something punters are getting into. So if you see you have a shot with a new act, you start spending your money on them.”

Little Boots … still to make the predicted breakthrough. Little Boots … still to make the predicted breakthrough. Photograph: Tom Oxley/Tom Oxley

As the next-big-thing lists assume more importance, more are being launched across other genres, including country and Christian music, in an attempt to become talking points and generate website traffic. But the polls are contentious: many people resent being told what they should be listening to, and complain that the results are skewed in favour of major-label acts (even the impeccably alternative Blog Sound poll tips several Universal Records artists). Some also question the impartiality of those who vote in them, suspecting that the “industry experts and tastemakers” on the Critics’ Choice and Sound of panels are in league with the music industry. The very term “critics’ choice” implies a we-know-best elitism.

For the nominees themselves, it can have a negative effect if they don’t quickly capitalise on it. Every Critics’ Choice winner, from Adele to Sam Smith, has been outstandingly successful – but then, they had major labels behind them, ensuring that advertising was booked, tour dates in place and music ready for release. But many nominees, and even some winners of other polls, are wrongfooted by the sudden attention.

“Once the egg timer is on,” as Record of the Day publisher Paul Scaife puts it, “there’s a level of expectation, which has helped some people, but others seem to be tarred with the brush of failure.” Jacob Rickard, producer of BBC Sound of 2015, maintains a nomination is an opportunity for an artist “to make out of it what they will”, but concedes that early exposure can be detrimental. “I guess it can also be counterproductive if you don’t do well. There are one or two every year that don’t take off as much as the others.”

Prematurely raised expectations didn’t help dance-pop singer Little Boots, who won Sound of 2009 but achieved relatively modest success, certainly compared with other winners of the title. “People see me as this example of someone who was No 1 on this poll and didn’t have worldwide No 1 records, and people are very quick to focus on that. Unless you go stratospheric, people are very quick to judge. But I’ve just made my third album and I have a career from [winning], so it’s not like things didn’t happen. But I guess I didn’t turn into the UK Lady Gaga, which is what I was marketed as.”

Her opinion of ones-to-watch lists now? “I know managers who try to not to get their artists onto them ’cos the expectations are too high. It clouds your personality and vision when you win and you have to be strong to get through. Even if I do the most creative, coolest thing, I come with this story that’s very difficult to shake.”

Critics Choice and Sound Of … the winners

BBC Sound Of …

2003 – 50 Cent

2004 – Keane

2005 – The Bravery

2006 – Corinne Bailey Rae

2007 – Mika

2008 – Adele

2009 – Little Boots

2010 - Ellie Goulding

2011 – Jessie J

2012 – Michael Kiwanuka

2013 – Haim

2014 – Sam Smith

Brits Critics’ Choice

2008 - Adele

2009 – Florence & the Machine

2010 – Ellie Goulding

2011 – Jessie J

2012 – Emeli Sandé

2013 – Tom Odell

2014 – Sam Smith

2015 – James Bay

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