January is a month in which the music industry generally wakes from a month long hibernation. It’s first hype event is almost always in announcing the winner of the BBC’s Sound of… competition, which the frumpy corporation has been running since 2003 when Fifty Cent took the prize. It is voted for by 170 music critics, broadcasters and DJs, as well as former nominees such as Billie Eilish, Lewis Capaldi and Chvrches, all of whom sift through the contenders before coming up with a long list of ten acts, published each December.
Grabbing the award not only confers some kudos – and for the artist’s (usually) major label very high quality PR – but if you’re into gambling its normally odds on a guarantee of major popularity. In the last decade former victors HAIM, Sam Smith, Years & Years and Elle Goulding have all gone on to global prominence, although the judges might not always get it right: in 2015, Stormzy finished third.
This year’s winner is Celeste Waite, a 20 year old soloist described by Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac as a “Phenomenal talent”. As part of her gushing testimonial it was revealed that she was once sacked for absenteeism, preferring to write songs: if this sounds a little Fields-of-Wheat, on Strange her slightly quirky voice – a partial meld of Corinne Bailey-Rae and Kelis – is the most interesting bit of a number which could’ve been salvaged from Back To Black’s leftovers.
Celeste and her team have plenty to be excited about. But the knock on effects aren’t always as expected. Michael Kiwanuka claimed the gong in 2012 and his debut album Home Again sold well. But he’s since revealed the pressure of following it up nearly caused him to quit the business altogether and as a consequence of this impostor syndrome, his subsequent release Love & Hate was a far more abrasive – and commercially risky – work.
Being unnecessarily harsh on a young artist just trying to realise her dream of course isn’t a good look. The real problem with the Sound of... is the BBC itself, not just for staying so resolutely in it’s lane every year, but for fronting a big company marketing campaign by proxy and dressing the whole thing up as competitive. Outside their window British music hasn’t been this diverse and exciting for decades: the sound of 2020 however is annoyingly pretty much like the sound of every other year.