Should British Black Music Shut Up Shop?

Kwaku of the Black Music Congress provokatively points out that the British Black Music Industry is on the verge of collapse and could soon be in terminal decline. What can be done to rectify the situation? Check out Kwaku's thoughts on the topic…

  • The British music industry is accused of failing the black music sector, by not adequately engaging with and developing home-grown talent.
  • Participants urged to do for self, by going the independent route.
  • Positive action is advised – artists and producers need to produce credible products, radio needs to popularise domestic product by pro-actively featuring it, and the consumer must decide to consciously support by buying British black music.

“The UK music industry has failed us. The UK media has failed us. Industry organisation such as the BPI has failed us. AIM has failed us. Sony Music has failed us. BMG has failed us. Universal Music has failed us. Warner Music has failed us. EMI has failed us. The BBC has failed us. ITV has failed us. Channel 4 has failed us. Capital FM has failed us. Kiss FM has failed us. They can’t deny this,” declared Hugh Francis, keynote speaker at the Black Music Congress (BMC) debate ‘Should British Black Music Shut Up Shop?’, which took place Saturday Feb. 3 at City University, London. Many of the participants concurred with Francis’ observation.

As we settle down to watch this year’s record industry back-patting bash, which is the Brit Awards, it is, to use that famous Dyke-ism: so “hideously white”. Hannah Pool in her insightful essay on the state of British black music in the Guardian (28/01/06) has suggested we don sunglasses. Black music is under-represented. With the exception of the “urban” music category, British black music is nowhere to be found.

The topic of the BMC debate was not selected merely to be provocative. There are endemic issues, such as lack of serious commitment to British black music, and fundamental shifts within the music industry, which need to be urgently addressed, or else the question of ‘should British black music shut up shop?’ will be a re-occurring one.

BMC founder and music industry lecturer Kwaku reminded participants that the issues were not just about music. “We are not going to talk about music or talent – you only have to attend the various showcases around to see the wealth of music talent that we have. What we need to understand are the industry infrastructures and how the industry works. There are many good courses within and outside this building where you can learn about it,” said Kwaku.

“Don’t just take care of the do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do of the music, you also need to keep your eye on the ball and listen out for the clanging sound of the money, the business,” added keynote speaker and Jetstar Records head of business affairs & intellectual property Hugh Francis.

We are seeing the dying moments of the single, as evidenced by the demise of Smash Hits and the ever-decreasing viewership of Top Of The Pops. The industry has recently made further concessions towards accommodating digital-only sales within the official charts. Next month, Channel 4 launches an album chart-based TV show, which will rely on live performances. Today’s most important radio station is not 1Xtra, Radio 1 or Capital. It’s Radio 2.

All this does not bode well for British black music. Few artists are developed into album-selling acts, hence they disproportionately rely on singles sales. Worse still, there are fewer legitimate digital sales of black music content, partly because most of the indie labels which support the music have not effectively hooked up to digital portals.

Despite the almost blanket media coverage of indie music and its saviours such as the Artic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, British black music has managed to make some noise within the British consciousness, mostly courtesy of  UK garage/grime. However, the genre’s leading proponents Sway and Roll Deep, only manage to breach the bottom rungs of the national singles and album charts, respectively.

The consensus among the debate participants was to do it for self, by going the indie route, because the mainstream, major companies were either not interested in or did not know how to effectively market British black music talent. The only glimmer of hope seems to be EMI-signed singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae, who’s been touted by BBC Online, Music Week, and Radio 2. But that’s one artist from a huge pool of talent that is being ignored. Which other new album-selling artists are being developed?

Black Music Congress - Hugh FrancisQuestions regarding why major record companies seldom commit to developing British artists into album-selling acts, and black acts often being the first to be dropped at the first sign of troubled, were discussed. What is the music industry doing to ensure that the album charts and album-based TV programmes do not continue to have “hideously white” representation? That’s was one of the key questions posed by participants.

Developing British black music artists is not a favour. “What we have to remember is that a strong black music sector is inevitably good for Britain. Because it will create jobs, and bring money into the economy here,” urged Francis.

The way forward is for artists and producers to create credible products – “that’s strong song-writing, good production, and impressive performances,” advised Kwaku. The media, particularly radio, have to pro-actively play British in order to popularise it. Although efforts already in place such as 1Xtra’s Homegrown and Choice FM’s UK Cuts were highlighted, participants felt more needs to be done. Finally, consumers and fans “actually need to put their hands in their pockets to support British product, instead of continually making excuses”.

Black Music Congress ParticipantsIn order to build a cohesive sector, the BMC is in the process of putting together a directory mapping out who does what. Additionally, the BMC has launched June is British Black Music Month, a campaign that hopes to encourage the conscious promotion of British music through talks and performances throughout the summer month.

Black Music Congress
BBM/BMC founder

The Black Music Congress is a forum for networking, discussing issues around black music, and an outlet for music industry awareness and training.

The next BMC debate at City University, London is in early June (topic is yet to be confirmed)

  • Photo Credit: Patrick Friday

Black Music Congress Participants

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