The Brit Awards is always a triumph of the beige over the bold – and democracy is to blame

Ed Sheeran performing at last year's Brits
Ed Sheeran performing at last year's Brits

On Wednesday at London’s O2, the Brit Awards will see the usual triumph of the popular over the interesting, the successful over the plucky, and the beige over the bold. With Ed Sheeran up for three awards after his record-breaking year, it is inconceivable that he’ll walk away empty handed.  

So just how does the voting at the Brits works? What is it about the system that seems to reward the biggest artists? Could change be in the air? And does any of this matter anyway, given that the awards is intended as a glitzy celebration of success? 

The Brits voting system is relatively straightforward. Eight of the Awards’ 10 categories are voted for by a 1,000-strong Voting Academy, made up of representatives from the music ecosystem: record labels, publishers, managers, journalists, agents, NUS Entertainment Officers and all the previous year’s nominees.

The December prior to the awards, each Academy member is emailed a weblink. On this link are longlists for all eight categories, such as British Male Solo Artist and British Album of the Year, which have been compiled independently by the Official Charts Company. Voters click on the five candidates they think should win. These names move into a box with numbered slots on the side of the page and can be re-ordered until the member is happy. The votes are weighted, so even fourth and fifth place votes will count towards the final result.

When all categories are complete, the member submits the form to the organisers and all 1,000 replies are collated and the weightings taken into account, all overseen by Electoral Reform Services and in accordance with broadcaster ITV’s voting compliance. The top five in each category become the official shortlist, which is announced in January, a month or so before the awards.

Stormzy, who is nominated for Best Male Artist, performing at the Brits 2017

So far, so simple. And representative. The BPI, which runs the Brits, reshaped its voting panel a few years ago to include more black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) members after the 2016 awards failed to nominate a single black artist in a major category, prompting the #BritsSoWhite online backlash. Around 24 per cent of Academy members are now from a BAME background, and 48 per cent are female. The membership is broad and the voting system democratic and fair; in this sense, the Brits organisers could never be accused of relying on a small group of white male record industry execs to chose the winners.

So why do the most obvious candidates always seem to triumph? For the very same reasons: because the membership is broad and the voting system is democratic. Due to the sheer numbers of people voting – and the weighting of votes – there tends to be a flattening effect in the results. Any blips or spikes in voting for interesting minor artists are steamrolled by the weight of the majority, often resulting in the most obvious people winning.

A current member of the Academy explains: “It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of Stormzy and you put him at number one. It’s hard not to put Ed Sheeran in there if you look at the year he’s had. He’s got to be in there, so you might put him at 5th. But if everybody puts him at 5th, because it’s weighted, he’ll come first in the end. It’s a very basic popularity contest.”

It’s interesting to note that last year’s winners of British Male and British Female Solo Artists – David Bowie and Emeli Sandé respectively – enjoyed the best sales of all the people in their categories over the previous year. There are clearly other reasons for their wins, particularly in Bowie’s case, but higher sales equal more recognition and profile, ergo they’re more likely to make it into the voters’ boxes more often.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this. But when winners are chosen by the blunt tool of a mass vote, rather than by a discussion on candidates’ artistic merit, then the biggest – and most commercially successful – names will tend to triumph.

Analysis of the last six years’ winners of the British Album of the Year category bears out this correlation between commercial success and Brits success. In four of those years, the act who won the award also had the best selling album in the UK over the previous 12 months: Adele’s 21 at the 2012 awards, Emeli Sandé’s Our Version of Events in 2013, Ed Sheeran’s X in 2015 and Adele’s 25 in 2016.

And in the two years when the Brit went to slightly less commercially successful albums? The creators of the previous year’s best-selling album still got gongs anyway under the “Global Success Award”, namely One Direction in 2014 and Adele in 2017. The message seems to be clear: have the best-selling album and a Brit Award is yours one way or another. Again, this is fine: the Brits exist to celebrate success. But it’s also why the evening is massively predictable and why Ed Sheeran is guaranteed success next Wednesday.

There does seem to be change in the air that could lead to niche musical genres like grime or hip hop triumphing. As well as the greater BAME representation on the voting panel, there is far greater representation of urban genres in the nominations. Of the 64 nominations this year, 42 per cent are BAME or feature BAME artists within their line up or as a featured artist. I would love to see Loyle Carner or Stormzy beat Sheeran to Best British Male, and hope springs eternal.

Loyle Carner is nominated for Best British Male

It’s often suggested that record companies somehow “game” the system to ensure their artists win. With only three major record labels remaining – Universal, Sony and Warners, who between then control 80 per cent of the market – this is a juicy conspiracy theory. It’s true that there is nothing to stop record company insiders voting for their own artists. A source who used to work at a major record label said that during his time as a Brits voter he was given gentle nudges by his company on which artists to focus on.

“No one checked how you voted and you never had a gun to your head. It wasn’t an edict from on high,” said this source. “But you were reminded before the vote that ‘These are the projects that we want to focus on’.” But in truth any idea of the labels  “gaming” the vote is impossible: the majors are only given 50 Academy Member votes each, so their influence on the voting is limited.

There has also been a suggestion this year of record company tactics. Sam Smith, who released his second album last November, failed to win any nominations despite being eligible. Cynics have suggested that because Smith will also be eligible for next year’s awards – the Brits "eligibility period" for entrants is 14 months long – he has somehow been deliberately held back due to Sheeran’s likely dominance this year. Not true, say Brits insiders: Smith was on the longlists this year and anyone could have voted for him.

One solution to all this could be to disband the Academy system and instead open up every vote to the public. But this is fraught with its own difficulties.

Reports this weekend claimed that one of the two votes open to the public at this year’s awards – British Artist Video of the Year – was being manipulated by fake Twitter accounts. This is clearly bad. Organisers say they’ve detected and discarded the votes. The flipside of this, though, is that public Brits votes have occasionally thrown up the odd surprise among the predictability. In 1999, indie darlings Belle & Sebastian beat massive mainstream pop groups Steps and Five to win British Breakthrough Act, to almost universal disbelief.

Does any of this matter in the grand scheme of things? Not really. In the firmament of awards ceremonies, the Brits knows its place. It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than populist. The Brits is Tesco to the Mercury Prize’s interesting bric-a-brac market stall. It’s on prime-time ITV for goodness’ sake, hardly the place to showcase the return of Slowdive, interesting though that was.

“No one should be surprised that the Brits is mainstream or popular because that’s what it’s about. You have the Mercury Prize, the Kerrang! Awards, the Q Awards, the British Folk Awards, the Ivor Novellos for the other stuff. The Brits is for the industry to slap itself on the back,” says the former label exec.

Music execs simply see the night as an excuse to enjoy the copious booze crammed into the ice buckets on their tables. Hell, if you’re going to spend three hours in a river taxi trying to get across town for the Foo Fighters’ aftershow you may as well be well oiled. The Brits is an industry knees-up, a snapshot of known knowns, a marketing exercise with the very occasional surprise thrown in. Everyone knows that.

Everyone also knows something else: the Brits isn’t about who wins anyway. It’s about who plays. With the death of Top of the Pops and our atomised consumption habits, it’s one of the few nights in British TV where a mass audience tune in to see original pop music. The chance for 5.5 million people to watch an artists? For record companies this, rather than who lifts a statuette, is where the real battle lies.