When Adele was named the winner of the Brits’ inaugural artist of the year award last year, she addressed the changes that had been made to create the gender-neutral prize.
“I understand why the name of this award has changed but I really love being a woman and being a female artist,” she told the audience at the O2 Arena. “I’m really proud of us.”
The first recipient of the Brit Awards‘ artist of the year prize – a merging of the best male and best female prizes to make space for non-binary acts, after questioning from Sam Smith and others – happened to be female, but also happened to be Adele, one of the world’s biggest music stars, riding high following the release of a much-anticipated comeback album after several years out of the spotlight.
She was pretty much a dead cert. With the future Mercury Prize winner Little Simz nominated alongside her, the line-up was a mix of male and female stars, and it seemed to be a step forward for progress.
Fast-forward 12 months and the landscape is different. When this year’s best artist shortlist was revealed to be an all-male line-up – Harry Styles, Stormzy, George Ezra, Fred Again and Central Cee – the criticism came instantly; Brits organisers were quick to respond and point out it is an industry problem.
“While it’s disappointing there are no nominations in the artist of the year category, we also have to recognise that 2022 saw fewer high-profile women artists in cycle with major releases as was the case in 2021,” a spokesperson said. “These trends based around the release schedule are a feature of the music industry, but if, over time, a pattern emerges, then this puts the onus on the industry to deal with this important issue.”
From Florence & The Machine to Charli XCX – who was eligible?
To be eligible for this year’s best artist award, an act must have achieved at least one top 40 album or two top 20 singles, released between 10 December 2021 and 9 December 2022.
Florence & The Machine, Charli XCX, Rina Sawayama, Mabel, Ella Henderson, Becky Hill, Beth Orton, Emeli Sande, KT Tunstall, Beabadoobee, Nina Nesbitt and Shygirl were all eligible; Kae Tempest, who is non-binary, was also eligible.
However, female artists make up just 12 of the 71 eligible acts, or just under 17% – indicating, as Brits organisers have pointed out, that the problem is bigger than their ceremony alone. The treatment of female artists in the industry is an issue that has been put under the spotlight most recently by Raye, who has finally released her debut album after years of being held back.
But as microcosms of the wider industries they represent, awards ceremonies do tend to lay these problems bare. Take Little Mix’s win for best group in 2021, for example, when they became the first female band to win the award – ever – more than 40 years since the Brits began.
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Sky News contacted representatives for the female and non-binary acts eligible for best artist this year, but none of the stars were available for comment.
You can’t really argue with the now Grammy best album winner and Mercury-nominated Styles, nor chart-topper and Glastonbury headliner Stormzy. And of course, it’s subjective, but there has been plenty of debate surrounding the other slots.
Overall, female artists – or groups featuring women – make up 42% of the nominations. And of course, they could well dominate the winners’ list on the night – last year, female artists picked up 10 of the 15 (66.67%) of the prizes available; Adele winning three of these.
‘They’re trying to even the playing field’
This year’s Brits ceremony takes place on Saturday, held on a weekend for the first time.
Alt-rock duo Nova Twins, who are nominated for two awards – best group and best rock/alternative act – say that as two young black women, they have had to overcome being pigeonholed as hip-hop or RnB musicians to make the music they really want to make, and that there is “100%” misogyny in the industry.
Speaking to Sky News about the gender-neutral award, guitarist and singer Amy Love praised Brits organisers for trying to “even the playing field” – but said: “At the same time, if you’re going to do that, then make sure you’re including everyone… otherwise it becomes just a male category again.”
She continued: “There’s been improvements [but] the conversation still needs to be had and we just hope that people can reflect, so then the following year it won’t happen again.
“And that’s all it is, it’s just a conversation. I think people get so used to jumping down each other’s throats and then nothing gets done because it turns into anger. But if you just talk, analyse, you know, recognise what’s going on, hopefully the following year it could be fixed.”
“You acknowledge the good done in other areas,” said South, highlighting their own nominations and those of fellow female duo Wet Leg – who tie with Styles for most nods this year.
More women being recognised for “heavy” music is “a win”, she added. “But then we can also keep pushing.”
There’s always controversy around an awards show…
Comedian Mo Gilligan, who is hosting the ceremony for the second time this year, tells Sky News there is “always some kind of controversy” surrounding an awards show; he points to the Oscars, where black actresses have yet again missed out on the best actress shortlist. “They are holding the mantle for controversy.
However, he says it is important not to let any controversy overshadow things for the artists caught up in it through no fault of their own.
“But for me, it’s letting the powers that be that are upstairs in a boardroom to be the ones who can really sort out this kind of stuff, whereas for me, it’s just [about] making sure I give people their moment, really. And I never want to feel like I’m throwing my opinion on someone’s biggest moment in their career.”
However, he says the conversations “should be” happening. “I think that’s what music’s all about.”
What have others said?
All Saints star Shaznay Lewis, who won two Brit Awards for the band’s hit song Never Ever in 1998 – best single and best video – wrote about the issue for the Radio Times; in her article, she welcomed the category change as a “welcome and wonderful step” for recognising talent regardless of gender, but said that “progressive ideas should benefit everyone”.
She continued: “How can that be the case if we do not acknowledge female artists, who are symbols of empowerment to millions of young aspiring women?”
Next year, three-time Brit winner Smith will be eligible for a nomination for the first time since the changes in the category, following the release of their album Gloria.
Speaking about the lack of female nominees in an interview with The Sunday Times, the star said it was a “shame”, and continued: “Things are moving forward, but it’s obvious it’s not there yet. From seeing that [best artist] list, there is still a long way to go.”
They continued: “It’s incredibly frustrating… It feels like it should be easy to do. [The Brits] just have to celebrate everyone because this is not just about artists getting awards. Awards are for kids watching on TV, thinking, ‘I can make music like this’. When I was young, if I’d seen more queer people at these awards it would have lit my heart. Awards are there to inspire.”
What about the other categories?
Across the other major categories – song of the year, best new artist, best group, international group, international artist, international song, and best album – there is more of a mix.
Internationally, with Taylor Swift, Beyonce and Lizzo in the mix, women outnumber the men – Kendrick Lamar and Burna Boy – as they do in the best new British artist category, 60% to 40%.
The British song of the year category is male-dominated – with two thirds (66.67%) of the artists featured being male, a quarter female (25%), and one non-binary (8.33%). And with The 1975, Wet Leg, Styles, Stormzy and Fred Again up for best album, the split in this category is 80% male, 20% female.
For international song, the nominees are 50% male, 50% female.
Girl band FLO have already been announced as this year’s rising star recipients – the award is always announced ahead of the ceremony – and the other two acts shortlisted, Cat Burns and Nia Archives, are also female; a sign perhaps that more female stars could be up for the big awards in future years.
In the genre categories, there is more gender balance, but these have received criticism of their own. While the new best pop and RnB category is more inclusive in terms of gender, it isn’t in terms of genre; with Cat Burns, Charli XCX, Dua Lipa, Harry Styles and Sam Smith in the running, there is a distinct lack of RnB.
Brits voting explained
YolanDa Brown, chair of the BPI, which runs the awards, and Damian Christian, chair of the 2023 Brits committee, released a lengthy statement about this year’s awards and the voting process behind them.
The awards are reviewed annually, they said, and the decision to bring in the artist of the year award was made “following extensive industry consultation, and informed by the belief that it was time to progress to judging artists solely on the quality and popularity of their work, rather than on who they are, or how they choose to identify”.
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The Brits Voting Academy is made up of around 1,200 music industry experts. This year, some 52% of those who voted identified as women, while 31% were “members who are black, Asian or minority ethnic”, Brown and Christian said.
Sectors represented included artists, producers, record labels, publishers, managers, retailers, live promoters, and journalists and media workers.
Is any of this likely to come up on the night?
With artists such as Charli XCX, Sawayama and Hill, who missed out on the best artist shortlist, up for other awards, they may well have something to say should they win in their categories.
And whichever man wins best artist could also take a stand, too. In fact in 2020, when he won the award for best male artist, before the changes, Stormzy paid tribute to the women in his team – after only four nominations out of a possible 25 in mixed categories went to women that year.
“To be the best male, I have got the most incredible females in my team,” he said. “You lot are the greatest, the best male is nothing without the best females. I love you guys.”
So keep an eye on those speeches.