For underground music talent, it’s back to the BBC barricades. In 2010, a high-profile campaign was launched to save leftfield-leaning new music station 6 Music. Were it not for the 25,000 emails that bombarded the BBC in support of the station, we might never have heard of Fontaines DC, Idles or Jockstrap. And now a similar groundswell of objection is rising to the news that all 32 of the station’s talent-hunting BBC Introducing DJs nationwide have been put on notice of redundancy, following leaked proposals that suggest the Beeb is considering culling two-thirds of their output, or merging shows into larger regional broadcasts.
Now this might, at first glance, look like a very post-Brexit sort of streamlining; cutting down on frivolous, niche-interest expenditure so that more of our precious license fee can be syphoned into Claudia Winkleman’s Traitors knitwear budget. Plus, the most high-profile acts discovered through the network – Ed Sheeran, George Ezra, Blossoms, Florence + The Machine, James Bay – strongly suggest that UK culture might be better off if BBC Introducing were encased in concrete and kicked off a boat into the North Sea.
But forget these pop culture travesties – they’re more representative of the conservative (with an increasingly capital C) tendencies of the big boy stations that BBC Introducing acts into. What’s key is that the network discovers and encourages rising British talent across the board. From the 5,000 tracks by unsigned or little-known artists uploaded to the Introducing website and trawled through by its regional micro-John Peels every week since 2007, a vast array of acts have gained crucial early exposure. Artists as varied as Lanterns On The Lake, Arlo Parks, Stornoway, English Teacher and Yard Act owe local leg-ups to the service; great acts that, as struggling unknowns, no streaming site would ever happen to randomly chuck your way because it sounds exactly like what you last listened to.
The uproar has been industry wide. Tom Robinson of 6 Music has dedicated his blog to messages of support for the service, receiving 4,000 posts in a matter of hours. Danni Brownsill of SJM Concerts told The Guardian that the plans to merge shows may lead to already marginalized regional acts getting further overlooked, and therefore giving up: “Artists in Staffordshire and Cheshire would suddenly be competing with Manchester and Birmingham.” A group of industry figures have penned an open letter of objection to BBC chair Richard Sharp, who appears to care more about helping keep Boris Johnson’s soft furnishings allowance in the pink than British music alive.
Their point is simple yet irrefutable – for BBC radio to shy away from its dedication to discovering new British music is to turn down the nozzle on its own oxygen supply. Over its 15-year existence, BBC Introducing has become the most vital and effective means of developing the playlist-hoggers of the future. From my own ill-fated forays into band management, I’ve seen first-hand how integral it has become to the UK’s music ecosystem. Labels want to sign acts with local followings and healthy “numbers” online. National radio producers want to promote bands with regional airplay under their belts. At every step of navigating these groundwork stages, two words come up relentlessly. And they certainly aren’t “Greg James”.
“We need to acknowledge the changing listening habits of audiences,” a BBC statement read, which roughly translates as “human curation is dead, and we welcome our new algorithmic overlords.” True, the nation’s musical tastes are now dictated by computer code, and if you’ve ever seen an AI attempt at a Smiths lyric you’ll know how terrifying that idea is. The suspicion is (Spotify are a little opaque on the actual numbers) that British pop culture has become a slave of the “passive play”; those popular tracks from major names that rachet up phenomenal numbers by dint of being the default songs that a platform gravitates towards when listeners leave it running in the background. The more release day plays a Bad Bunny track gets, the more popular the algorithm thinks Bad Bunny is, the more it cues up Bad Bunny to passive listeners who like things like Bad Bunny, the more Bad Bunny invades your waking nightmares like a Latin trap Candyman.
With the very means of consumption gently guiding listeners away from the little-known and towards the monumentally popular, there’s now zero chance of the next Sex Pistols, Stone Roses or KLF having enough of an impact on pop culture to shift its course an inch. You can understand why the BBC might surrender to this inexorable rise of the machines. But let’s not forget, it was human curation that kept British music so exciting for the past six decades or so, upending the zeitgeist every few years with psychedelia, prog, punk, new wave, new romanticism, acid house, Britpop and so on. And it’s now streaming’s fundamental methodology – ceaselessly feeding you more of what you already like to maintain maximum passive engagement, a model lifted wholesale from the Dave channel – which has kept it in a lucrative stasis since about 2013. A 10-year holding pattern of grime versus electro R&B, occasionally shaken by the supersonic boom of a fly-by from Adele.
The BBC insists their new music output will remain extensive. Their BBC Sounds website, they claim, will still support the original, challenging, taste-making and identity-altering music that might be cut from the airwaves. But, crucially, you’ll only discover it if you’re inclined to go looking for it. The entire point of the Introducing shows is that they put those sounds in the path of casual listeners, labels and higher-ranking DJs, exposing people to the shock of the new that keeps culture evolving. They might not have the clout to start a youthquake in the modern age, but it’s these sort of fearless independent sources that unearth and champion the most interesting and surprising new acts: your Matt Malteses, your Little Simz, your Wet Legs. Introducing isn’t just a lifeline for both the deep pools of nonconformist talent in the UK, but for its more individualistic and open-minded music fans.
What’s more, it appears to be one of the very few corners of the music industry where you can’t simply buy your way out of obscurity. Where you get treated the same whether you’re Billy Nomates or Bono’s nepo baby. Were it to fall, denying the outsiders a sliver of spotlight to steal, expect even more zero-risk, big-budget mundanity dominating the airwaves of the future; more Sam Smith, more stasis. And Britain, deep down, is just too talented for that.