‘And the loser is …’: Are music awards shows in crisis?

With plummeting ratings and accusations of racial and gender bias, the Brits and Grammys are facing a battle to stay relevant

Once upon a time, the Brit awards and the Grammys were an annual staple in the TV calendar of even the most casual music fan. Drawing millions of viewers, the ceremonies offered a feast of entertainment, ranging from the unpredictable to the spectacular. Think Chumbawamba chucking a bucket of ice water over John Prescott at the 1998 Brits or Lady Gaga emerging from an egg at the Grammys in 2011. More recently, Brits sets by Stormzy and Dave have marked an important shift in mainstream recognition of Black British talent.

For audiences, however, the shine seems to have worn off. Last year’s ITV broadcast of the Brits, which was postponed from February to May due to Covid-19, recorded 2.9 million viewers – a figure that plunged for the fourth year running. The 2021 Grammys were the lowest rated in history, delivering an audience of just 8.8 million viewers for CBS, down a staggering 53% on the year prior. (These declines aren’t exclusive to music award ceremonies: the Oscars also recorded a 58.3% dip in viewers last year.)

This is not the whole picture: both events have made efforts to digitise their offerings and could boast high engagement on social media. The 2021 Brits had a global audience of 1.7 million for its YouTube live stream, while the Grammys saw more than 77bn impressions on social platforms that same year.

Awards! Huh, good God, y’all … what are they good for?
Awards! Huh, good God, y’all … what are they good for? Photograph: Lisa Sheehan/The Guardian

But beyond the numbers, there have been other challenges. In 2016, the #BritsSoWhite campaign shone a light on a lack of racial diversity. That year, there were just four artists/groups of colour (Naughty Boy, Rudimental, Izzy Bizu and Arrow Benjamin as a featured singer) nominated in the British categories, from a total of 52 entries, and all the winners were white. Gender has also been an issue: from 2011 to 2021, female acts represented only 31.5% of nominees in the four main categories, and last year, Little Mix were the first girl band to win best British group in the Brits’ 41-year history.

The Grammys too has been accused of racial bias – both Drake and Frank Ocean snubbed the 2017 show for that reason – and, in 2020, the first female president and CEO of its parent organisation, the Recording Academy, Deborah Dugan, exited after less than six months, calling the event “ripe with corruption”. More recently, the Weeknd has said he’ll snub the Grammys due to a lack of transparency in the voting after he received no nominations. While that might seem like sour grapes, he isn’t alone: Drake, who has withdrawn his two nominations for 2022, last year called for the ceremony to be replaced with something new.

For all the criticism, both the Brits and Grammys are at least showing a willingness to innovate. The Grammys responded to inequality claims by setting up a diversity and inclusion task force, with the Recording Academy publishing the steps being taken to address the “systemic and ongoing under-representation” of minority groups. The Brits voting academy, meanwhile, is refreshed each year and in 2020, the male/female split of voters was 51%/49%, with BAME representation at 24.5%. This year, the Brits’ gendered categories have been scrapped to make room for non-binary artists (after Sam Smith said they weren’t eligible for inclusion in 2021).

Still, these attempts at a refresh have brought their own problems. The lack of a specific category for female talent poses the risk of fewer women being celebrated. We know this is what happens on other platforms: on UK radio, female acts took a minuscule 20% share of airplay in the first six months of 2021, according to figures from the Why Not Her? collective.

The founder of Why Not Her?, Linda Coogan Byrne, says: “If you have gender-neutral awards categories, what you get reflected back at you is the discrimination that exists in the music industry. The people on those judging panels can only choose whoever has been nominated. Who submits the work? It’s predominantly the record labels. And if only 20% of those they sign are female-identifying artists, how many women are going to win?”

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing both sets of awards is maintaining relevance. It is hard to capture the attention of today’s youth when they can spend time on pretty much whatever they want – be it Lil Nas X’s pole-dancing descent into hell or a video of a cat laughing – by just picking up their phones. And, crucially, that generation has grown up on streaming, where the focus is more on songs.

Shock of the ‘new’ … Little Simz Performs At The O2 Academy Brixton in December 2021.
Shock of the ‘new’ … Little Simz Performs At The O2 Academy Brixton in December 2021. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty

Awards shows have struggled to get their heads round this new digital world. Subscription streaming, while accounting for 79% of consumer spend on music in 2021, doesn’t really pay well unless an artist is in a rarefied tier of megastars. That means that using sales as a barometer of success – as the Brits, where entries are only eligible if they reach the Top 40, does – isn’t particularly representative of the world musicians live in today, either. Acts who have a lucrative touring life, or are popular in a myriad of other ways, are bypassed. It is striking that Little Simz is a Brits best new artist nominee this year because she scored her first Top 40 album, despite the fact it’s her fourth overall, and she has been independently successful for many years.

Still, aside from the changes both ceremonies have already made, and will surely make in future, the idea of them being replaced by “something new” seems unlikely, given that the events are organised and owned by the music industry. “They are an advert for what the respective industries have managed to create over the past 12 months. Also, winning an award and getting up on stage at the ceremony suggests you are pretty wonderful and that’s quite a good feel for artists,” says Ted Cockle, the president of publisher Hipgnosis Songs, who sits on the Brits Committee.

What’s more likely is that both events chug on, chopped into ever-shorter clips, while TV viewership continues to dwindle until the format becomes obsolete. The magic of those unpredictable moments that happened in less polished times may be lost but, hey, at least there’s an endless number of funny animal videos to watch.

The Brit awards airs on Tuesday 8 February, 8pm, ITV.


Rhian Jones

The GuardianTramp

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