The Story Of UK Artists Being ‘Failed’ Is More Complicated Than It Seems

Words: Jesse Bernard

When Camden Council erected a statue of Amy Winehouse in 2014, my first thought led to the scores of black British musicians who never lived to see their impact fully realised, and have since been forgotten about. Winehouse was undoubtedly an immense talent, one that bore similarities to Etta James and Aretha Franklin, but despite her personal troubles, the British recording industry continued to back her. And while she became one of the most popular artists of the 21st century, there are dozens of equally talented artists that never made the cut—but why is that?

Over the decades, the UK music industry has been known to mishandle the marketing of black artists, with many expressing frustrations with their labels over sales and chart performance. In an interview earlier this year with Shola Ama, she suggested that external pressures affected the success of her second album, In Return. “My second album was really difficult because people wanted it to go in one way and I wanted to take my time on it and do my own thing,” she said. “I made choices that weren’t always beneficial to me, financially. I turned a lot of things down that could’ve really helped me stay visible and current.”

Ama later went on to cite singer Beverley Knight, who originally hails from Birmingham, as an example of an artist who initially started producing soul music but turned to more pop radio-friendly songs in the early 2000s. While it’s a career choice that led Knight to star in the West End in the Whitney Houston-inspired production The Bodyguard, her music no longer contains the heavy R&B influences heard on her 1995 debut album, B=Funk. Knight’s career path isn’t unusual, though; the likes of Gabrielle and Alexandra Burke found their sounds drastically change over the years as well.

Omar, one of the forefathers of neo-soul, once said that his label refused to provide live instrumentation for the recording of one of his records. Towards the end of the early noughties, R&B acts were often given electronic-based beats as opposed to live instrumentation. Money began to dry up for labels and budgets shrank, but it was often the case that radio-friendly pop artists were given sizeable budgets, largely because it was assumed labels would receive their return of investment.

The stories of many underground, signed and independent artists in the UK—specifically strands of rap, grime and R&B—consists of a lot of shoulda, woulda, couldas. As a new generation of talent has emerged in recent years, audiences have been lamenting the acts of yesteryear, many of whom found early fame through platforms such as Choice FM, Channel U, and SBTV. From Mr. Wong and Nathan to Keisha White and Sway, the scene was very much thriving over a decade ago. When Channel U went off-air and Choice FM was absorbed by Capital FM (now Capital XTRA), it was a sign of the times but it also highlighted the lack of investment black music-based platforms suffered from. BBC Radio 1Xtra was initially meant to fill a gap, primarily championing UK underground music, until it began to transform into a pop-ready station. It caused a ripple effect, meaning that it became much harder to get playlisted, but where 1Xtra moved on, SBTV, GRM Daily and Link Up TV filled that gap.

It’s less so that the UK failed these artists, as groups on Twitter have expressed these past few days, and more so that many of them arrived at a time where media wasn’t democratised, making it that much harder for grassroot acts to break through.

One of those names that built a large audience for themselves on SBTV, founded by Jamal Edwards, was Jessie J. While previous white female artists with soul-led voices enjoyed success, such as Winehouse and Adele, Jessie J hasn’t reached the same artistic heights as some of her other BRIT School alumni. That said, she’s released two albums in the past eighteen months, featuring the likes of iconic R&B heavyweight producers Babyface, Rodney Jerkins, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Unlike Adele and Amy Winehouse, Jessie J’s early soundscape was broad and often changed depending on the song. “Do It Like A Dude”, for example, takes inspiration from Rihanna and Ciara, while on a song like “Abracadabra”, she leans towards airy, teen pop. It’s easier to assume that it’s just black R&B and soul artists that struggle to maintain an avid, buying audience in the UK, but Jessie J’s case suggests that it’s simply soulful R&B that isn’t favoured as much in the British mainstream. Although Adele and Winehouse have material that is derived from black soul, their ballad-esque powerhouse performances erase traces of those origins. And by doing so, it makes their brands of soul much more palatable to British audiences who, for decades, favoured American soul singers over British ones.

If fans had any justice, the recent online conversation would suggest that Fame Academy contestant Lemar should have been more prominent than he was. But it depends on your perspective and how you define success. His first album, Dedicated, performed well on the charts, peaking at No. 16, as it was released shortly after his exit from the show. It was an impressive feat considering Lemar was a runner-up on the talent show, but he exceeded expectations when his second album, Time To Grow, released a year later in 2004, peaked at No. 8—as well as charting in Germany, Australia, France, Ireland and Switzerland. However, with his fifth album released in 2012, it raises questions as to why many believe he was failed.

The charts aren’t the be-all of British music, but pop is cyclical—even the viral hits have their small windows of success. In some respects, fans who support particular artists have a responsibility to ensure we keep track of their activities. With the wealth of musical talent now available on streaming platforms, it can be easy to forget what some of our favourite artists are up to. Lemar can only do so much to capture our attention—and keep it. If he were American, by now, Lemar would already be considered a legacy artist, especially with a compilation album under his belt now. Maintaining a sixteen-year career as an R&B artist in the UK is rare and it’s difficult to consider Lemar a failed success, after the fact.

Britain, historically, has failed to recognise black music legacies and history. Much of the online press that is written about artists such as Lynden David Hall, is sparse, particularly as he was an artist more popular before the expansion of the internet frontier. In a country where black people make up 3% of the population, there’s much less of a soul-driven market than the US where audiences have long been exposed to soul music. That’s not to say that wasn’t the case here in the UK, but in the ‘90s it was a commonly-held belief that neo-soul wasn’t considered authentic as critics perceived to be an American export. If that were the case, Amy Winehouse shouldn’t have been as successful as she was.

When artists speak of their dissatisfaction with labels and the wider industry, our expectations as fans often take precedence over what’s important to the musicians. Before labels took interest, these were people that had only one major purpose: to make music that they, and we, could feel. The first priority for major labels, of which there are now only three groups (Universal, Sony and Warner), is the bottom line and profit. Perhaps as fans invested in artistic talent, we should make more purposeful efforts to seek out the artists before they ever feel the need to sign. Artists are making increasingly less money with physical releases declining, while streaming has become the favoured medium for music consumption. Even I, at times, struggle to buy all of the music of my favourite artists, particularly when they’re now releasing multiple records in a year.

The measure of a British artist’s success shouldn’t be dependent on charting positions because as history has shown us, even today’s charting artists should be wary of dreams of a prolonged stay in the charts. Jessie J’s first album, Who We Are, peaked at No. 2 in the UK album charts and by her third, Sweet Talker, she peaked at No. 5. For your first three albums to reach the top ten—top five even—is difficult to achieve but last year’s R.O.S.E and This Christmas Day didn’t chart at all. This was partly because R.O.S.E was released in four parts, but a single of hers hasn’t charted since 2015, “Flashlight”, and that’s partly because for the past few years, Jessie’s been residing in the States. This suggests that Britain has a complex relationship with its artists that move overseas while also adoring hits from the US.

Some are destined to weather the storm and last for multiple generations, while others have a finite window in which to trawl the music scene for their own success—whatever that looks like. But if we want to see our favourite artists sustain lengthy careers, investing in their work as a community and scene ensures that longevity exists, otherwise in ten years’ time, we may be asking ourselves what happened to today’s crop of stars.

Posted on May 29, 2019