Brit Beat: Pete Tong Talks Dance Music’s Post-Covid Comeback; U.K. Biz Gears Up for More Streaming Battles; Dua Lipa’s Managers Take on Eurovision

·9 min read

London’s awards season is in full swing – but one event should be more of a rave than any other this year. That’s because the Music Industry Trusts Award (MITS) for outstanding contribution to the U.K. music industry goes to dance music legend Pete Tong.

At the Nov. 1 ceremony in London, Tong will join a list of previous winners that includes Sir Lucian Grainge, Rob Stringer and Elton John and Bernie Taupin, while New Order, Becky Hill and Norman Jay will play live to celebrate Tong’s 40-year career in the sector.

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He started as a club DJ and went on to pioneer dance music coverage on U.K. national radio network BBC Radio 1, as well as working as an A&R man; founding iconic dance label FFRR; helping to launch dance music industry conference the International Music Summit (IMS) in Ibiza; and fronting a hugely successful compilation series of orchestrated versions of dance anthems (the latest edition, Ibiza Classics, will be released Dec. 3). Even his name has entered the language – the phrase “It’s all gone Pete Tong” has long been rhyming slang for “It’s all gone a bit wrong.”

Formal industry honors have been a long time coming, but now that it’s all going right, Tong says he sees the MITS Award as acknowledgement of the entire dance music scene.

“I wouldn’t be there if I wasn’t designated as some kind of ambassador for what’s happened over the last 30-40 years,” he tells Variety. “Dance music has had a bit of a chip on its shoulder going all the way back to the days of disco, when it was enjoyed and celebrated on a cultural level but side-lined on an industry recognition level. And that’s been a driving force for me for a long time, to get our industry recognized. What was once dismissed as ‘It’s just a party’ is not really that.”

It has been a tough pandemic for the sector, with many clubs around the world closed for 18 months. According to a 2021 report from the IMS, the global dance music industry lost a staggering $3.9 billion in value last year. It was still worth $3.4 billion, although that was its lowest level for a decade.

“For the large part, people have scrapped their way through and survived,” Tong says. “Let’s see what happens as we come out the other side. It’s too early to say what kind of reset we’re going to see.

“But before the pandemic, there was a lot of talk about nightclubs suffering and shutting down because they were being blown out of the water by big one-off events,” he adds. “So maybe the pandemic allows for smaller situations to start blossoming again. A lot of creative stuff can come out of those small rooms.”

And Tong, who has viewed the genre’s ups and downs from the DJ booth across the decades, remains upbeat about the future.

“Creatively, dance music is in a really strong place,” he says. “The baton’s been passed onto yet another new generation, who are super-excited about all aspects of dance and electronic music. There’s a new, fresh, entrepreneurial spirit and a lot of great artists coming through. I’m very optimistic about the next few years, we will see another golden era.”

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Meanwhile, Tong’s former boss at Radio 1 is determined to take on the streaming services in his new role.

Ben Cooper, formerly controller of the hugely influential BBC network, is now chief content and music officer at U.K. commercial radio group Bauer Media Audio. He oversees dozens of stations that, according to the latest figures from Radio Joint Audience Research (RAJAR) – back after an 18-month absence caused by the pandemic – reached a record 20.6 million combined listeners in the U.K. during Q3.

Cooper says he plans to leverage the group’s scale to take on the growing competition from streaming companies in the radio/audio world. The first fruits of the new approach came when Bauer hosted Coldplay’s October 15 London comeback concert across 13 of its stations in eight different European countries, reaching a potential audience of 40 million.

“Bauer is Europe’s leading commercial radio operator but it’s never used its scale like that before,” says Cooper, who booked Coldplay for its first ever Live Lounge appearance on the BBC in 2000. “We’ve never actually used that collective, creative force. Coldplay liked the idea of doing something that’s never been done before – they’re always looking to innovate and change.”

Cooper says he has been approached by several high-profile artists and managers looking to do something similar since the broadcast, but says Bauer’s network of stations can also offer pan-European opportunities for other kinds of content, from documentaries to viral video features.

“We can use our scale as a European broadcaster to go to the biggest artists in the world and work with them in a new way,” he says. “We can broadcast to America and the world through social media, and if we can get the creative ideas, they’ll cut through. That will allow us to get up there with the likes of ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘The Late Late Show with James Corden’ and get a seat at the table.”

Bauer has also taken a leaf out of streaming’s playbook by introducing ad-free subscription services for some of its more niche genre stations – a radical move for a commercial broadcaster that relies on advertising for most of its income.

“There are some corporate antibodies you’ve got to get over,” laughs Cooper, who says listening hours amongst subscribers have spiked dramatically. “But I love the ambition of Bauer to be able to say, ‘No, let’s try this out’.”

And Cooper says his commercial radio revolution is just getting started.

“The main thing is we’re open for business,” he declares. “We’ve got a new attitude and a new creative ambition. We want to work with artists, managers and labels in new ways and to look for those firsts.”

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Meanwhile, the fallout from the recent Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s Parliamentary Committee investigation into music streaming continues.

In its official response to the Committee’s damning report, the U.K. government asked the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) to decide whether a market study should be conducted into the music streaming sector. And the CMA has now come forward to say that it will prioritize just such a study.

That’s been welcomed by all sides of the debate, even labels body the BPI. But, while the original Committee’s request was for the CMA to look at what the report called the “market dominance” of the majors, CMA chief executive Andrea Coscelli said the study would examine whether the streaming sector “is competitive, thriving and works in the interests of music lovers.”

Indeed, CMA market studies typically examine “why particular markets may not be working well for consumers” – an issue that didn’t actually come up much during the DCMS Committee investigation (£9.99-per-month for all the music in the world being a pretty decent deal for fans, after all). Instead, much of the focus was on whether artists and songwriters are paid fairly under current terms, with the Committee recommending “a complete reset” of how the sector works.

This means the first battleground will likely come as the CMA establishes the exact scope of its study. That work should begin shortly with sources telling me the study will launch “sooner rather than later”.

Once the areas to look at have been decided, Variety understands submissions will be invited from a wide range of interested stakeholders. CMA studies generally take around a year to report back, and could ultimately make recommendations to the Government about changes in policy and legislation; encourage businesses in the sector to self-regulate; launch a more serious market investigation; take enforcement action against companies; or simply give the sector a clean bill of health. Which means that at least another year of lobbying and campaigning looms for the industry before anything concrete emerges.

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Another of the government’s recommendations was for a “music industry contact group” to be established to discuss the Committee’s recommendations.

The first such group meeting took place earlier this month, with sources telling Variety the first session was productive, despite the tensions between opposing sides that meant this was the first time they’ve sat around the same table since the great streaming debate began.

Some key players were absent, however. Sources tell Variety the government has decided only recognized industry trade bodies, rather than individuals or companies, should take part in the group. That meant no major labels were present (although they were represented by the BPI), and that the #BrokenRecord campaign, led by musician Tom Gray, was also absent (although the Musicians’ Union and Ivors Academy, which run the parallel #FixStreaming campaign, are part of the group). Other interested parties which are not members of trade bodies – such as Hipgnosis and Apple Music – will go unrepresented.

That first meeting was largely concerned with which areas the group should discuss going forward, but the next session is likely to prove livelier as the debate begins in earnest. Stay tuned…

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Politics of a different kind has been blamed for the U.K.’s dismal performance at the Eurovision Song Contest in recent years.

But for the 2022 contest – due to be held in Turin, Italy next May – post-Brexit Britain is pulling out all the stops in a bid to avoid another “nul points” horror show. It’s been announced that the management company behind Dua Lipa, Lana Del Rey and Ellie Goulding, Tap Music, will lead the search for this year’s entry.

Tap co-founder Ben Mawson pledges to “use Eurovision to authentically reflect and celebrate the rich, diverse and world-class musical talent the UK is globally renowned for,” while co-founder Ed Millett says Tap is “incredibly focused on finding a really special act that creates excitement for the UK – both in the build-up to the final and beyond.”

Tap’s bid has already been backed by Dua Lipa and Elton John – although whether they’ll be able to persuade a superstar of similar magnitude to risk their reputation by flying the flag in 2022 remains to be seen.

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