The 2021 BRIT Awards looks set to be a ceremony like no other. Here, showrunners Rebecca Allen and Selina Webb outline how they navigated a million and one obstacles to bring together the world’s biggest artists and an audience of key workers for a night of optimism…
WORDS: George Garner Photo: Carsten Windhorst
Rebecca Allen and Selina Webb remember it like it was yesterday. It was the first week of March in 2020 and the pair had just attended a weekly Monday chart meeting when David Joseph, chairman/CEO of Universal Music UK & Ireland, took the pair aside and asked them for a quick word. Completely oblivious as to the reason for the impromptu chat, EMI Records president Allen and Universal executive vice president (not to mention former Music Week editor) Webb popped into his office.
“I remember us sitting on his sofa, and him saying, ‘I've had this idea,’” laughs Rebecca Allen over Zoom.
As far as ideas go, Joseph’s was a big one to digest. Having previously chaired the BRIT Awards multiple times – an incredibly successful tenure which included moving the show to the O2 Arena in 2011 and organising 2020’s acclaimed event – Joseph was making good on his word that he wouldn’t return to run it in 2021. As is tradition, the BRITs rotates between major record companies and the Universal cycle was still in full effect. Joseph did, however, have a good idea about the two execs that should take up the mantle…
“He presented it to us and we didn't say a word, which is really unusual for me,” grins Allen. “I remember looking at Selina thinking, ‘Is she going to say something?’ We both sat there in silence, I don't think we said anything for a minute.”
“We were excited,” picks up Webb. “One of the things we've got in common is we’re definitely positive people. Would we have put our hands up for it? I don't know, but it was incredibly flattering and a huge honour.”
“It's not an opportunity you turn down, that’s for sure,” adds Allen.
Both execs had two very different historical relationships with the ceremony. Selina Webb is, Allen insists, “the queen of BRITs” stories. Indeed, Webb’s first time attending it was the most disastrous BRITs ever.
“It was the Sam Fox/Mick Fleetwood one in 1989,” she laughs. “I was sitting way up in the gods at the Royal Albert Hall watching and – as this was my first BRITs and my first live TV show – I just couldn't believe how bad and painful it was; the whole thing was just a complete disaster. That's not the best benchmark to start with, seeing how bad it could be! I've been to every one since and there's obviously been some extraordinary highlights, whether it's being in the front row for Jacko and Jarvis to getting introduced to the Spice Girls before anyone knew who they were.”
“I can’t compete with Selina,” says Allen. “You've got to remember, I came through the classics and jazz route and so I was not always invited. But I got to go in 2004 when Jamie Cullum and Katie Melua performed. It was amazing because Jamie had done the BBC Radio 1 live lounge and covered Pharrell’s Frontin’ and Pharrell heard his version. He called Jamie’s manager and said ‘After the BRITs I'm going to be in this club, get Jamie to come.’ I don't know how I blagged it, but I got go along with him, and we ended up in some club and there was Pharrell! It was the most surreal night ever, but that's probably as cool as I got with the BRITs [laughs]. Because I worked at Decca for all those years, I never really had artists on the show – I was always put on a table towards the back, and so to go from the back of the room to the front of the room has been amazing.”
About that remarkable transition, then. Music Week has to wonder how are they coping with the pressure of putting on British music’s biggest night?
“We have each other,” smiles Allen. “We have spoken every day for the last six, seven months – including weekends, by the way. And there's a fantastic team in place around us, not just the BPI and the BRITs production team, but also within my own label at EMI and around Selina at Universal. We're very fortunate that we're surrounded with brilliant people who we've been able to lean on. We feel very fortunate.”
“There have been difficult times, I suspect there will be more difficult times, but we have each other and that's made all the difference,” continues Webb.
On top of the considerable requirements of balancing pulling the evening together with the demands of their day jobs, the challenges the pair have had to negotiate have been enormous. Initially, their primary concern was how to match Joseph’s acclaimed 2020 ceremony...
“Last year had proper shivers up your spine moments with Dave's performance,” admits Webb. “How do you follow that?”
This was their mindset at the start of March 2020. Naturally, the arrival of the pandemic changed everything.
“We thought we might be wrangling about table plans at that point,” recalls Webb. “But, for quite a long time, we didn't know what form the show could or would take.”
“And if the show could even take place,” continues Allen. “The world suddenly turned on its head, and we had no idea if the show would even be possible. Over the last year, we’ve followed all the different award shows that were happening, trying to figure out how we could learn from them. The big thing for us was, ‘How do we do ours differently?’ That was a tough thing, and that changed almost daily for us both because the world opened up and closed down again, and then opened up and closed down again! Our feelings around the show and what was possible changed almost weekly and sometimes daily. And I think that's been the most challenging thing for us as a BRITs team together.”
Yet what they have conjured up together is nothing short of remarkable. A recap: on May 11, the BRITs 2021 will host a crowd of 4,000 people at the O2 Arena. Not only will this mark the venue's first live show in more than a year, it is also part of the government’s Events Research Programme, a pilot scheme that will use Covid testing approaches to investigate how live shows can take place without social distancing. As for the crowd? It will comprise frontline workers, who will neither be socially distanced or required to wear face coverings in the arena, but must instead present a negative test upon arrival and provide contact details for NHS Test And Trace.
Hosted once again by Jack Whitehall, the night will also see some of the biggest names in music perform, including Dua Lipa, Coldplay, The Weeknd, Olivia Rodrigo, Rag’N’Bone Man & Pink, Headie One, Arlo Parks and the already-announced recipient of the BRITs Rising Star award Griff (“We were so happy about her winning,” salutes Allen). As for nominations, Polydor leads the way at this year’s awards with nine nods. The BRITs stated its academy achieved “gender parity and 26%, black, Asian, and minority ethnic representation”, resulting in four out of the five nominees for the Mastercard Album Of The Year category being women (Arlo Parks, Celeste, Dua Lipa and Jessie Ware – with J Hus the sole male nominee) and more than half the nominees in key categories being non-white.
Furthermore, the BRITs 2021 has also unveiled a clever twist on the winner’s trophy. Conceived by Es Devlin OBE and Yinka Ilori MBE (“They’ve been a joy to work with,” praises Webb), the double-trophy design was conceived so that each winner can gift the second smaller award to someone else “be it family member, friend, neighbour, colleague, fellow artist, key worker, or another person important to them.”
So, without further ado, it’s time for Rebecca Allen and Selina Webb to give us the full lowdown on a BRITs like no other…
What do you think it means to the industry that the BRITs is going ahead as a live event?
Selina Webb: “The wonderful Arlo Parks spoke incredibly eloquently about how music has been a balm to help people get through these terribly difficult times. And it has. We've all turned to music a lot over the past year, but there's nothing quite like the alchemy that happens with live music when you get a large crowd of people together, who are from very different backgrounds, all just enjoying the same performance. And that's something that we just haven't had [for a while]. I know there have been some other events, but to have a big audience indoors for some brilliant live music? That is a moment.”
Rebecca Allen: “This is going to be a very, very emotional night. The thing that touches us most is that this is an audience of people who have been the heroes in so many ways, they have really carried so many of us through this last year – and they are going to be in a room together, listening to some of the greatest music. I have goosebumps thinking about that.”
Was it always a no-brainer that the audience would comprise key workers?
SW: “Even before we knew that could happen, we were very clear that, even if we could have had tables with people clinking glasses, it did not feel right to do that. There won't be tables, the focus will be very much on that audience of fans and keyworkers –what they've done and the bravery of them. My only wish is that we could have opened the whole O2 up, but we're glad to get the people we can in.”
You said you wanted to devise a BRITs that truly reflected “the spirit of the past year” – what was that spirit in your mind?
RA: “Selina and I chatted through some of our own emotions, we talked a lot about how collaboration had been a big part of last year with communities coming together to support one another, and allyship. We talked about the fact that the world became inclusive; we were all sharing this same experience. Obviously, some have experienced far worse than others, but [there was] a common experience. So, when we thought about the BRITs, we thought about these words: ‘inclusivity’, ‘community’, ‘collaboration’, ‘kindness’ and ‘giving back’. It was about our emotions and our reflection on the year and trying to bring some of that into this show.”
SW: “And optimism as well, you'll really get a sense of that in it. I think that definitely comes through with the creative, it's not an accident that it's bright colours. And, in terms of the music and the artists on the show, it isn't just about what's happened in the charts last year, it is to reflect all the things that Becky was talking about – there’s a much broader message about the power of music, and how it can bring everyone together.”
So, what stamp do you feel you're putting on the BRITs?
SW: “It's a slightly different tone. To go back to the beginning, it was very daunting to try and put together a show with everything that was going on in the world, and not even knowing if it was going to be possible. But it has also been an opportunity to try and do things in a different way. Things like not necessarily having tables – not to say it wouldn’t go back to having tables next year – it's just a different tone. The trophies encapsulate it: it’s that idea of communities, giving back and being inclusive. That’s the idea with the award, and we just loved it.”
RA: “It was also the idea of having the audience in. The BRITs can feel slightly exclusive sometimes, people watching on TV see lots of industry people clinking glasses, and this year, it's going to be a really inclusive show for everybody and that's representative of the audience in the room. You're going to see your cabbie, postman, doctor, nurse, teacher or your hospital porter there. This show is for everybody, the show will represent that and so it will just feel more inclusive.”
As we’ve established, the BRITs is going to be the first major indoor music event to welcome a live audience. No pressure. How recently did that decision get made?
RA: “It was a week ago [from this interview] that we got the actual green light. Discussions had been happening for two or three weeks before that, obviously. But it was such a big decision to make: it wasn't just about getting the key workers into the room, we had to speak to the artists, crews and all the production. It wasn't a simple decision to make, we had to ensure the safety and well-being of everybody in that room and the BPI worked so hard to allow this to happen.”
SW: “We've always had in the back of our minds, and maybe it was over-optimistic, that we could get an audience. We talked about inviting key workers months and months ago, and we clung to that hope. Obviously, we would have adapted if we'd have to. So it's brilliant that that has come to pass… it's been quite, quite, quite late in the day.”
Was it always the case that if it could happen with a live audience that it should. Or were you hesitant?
SW: “We'd always hoped that such a thing could happen. And then, when the date was clearly a week before the next round and restrictions hopefully get loosened, our hope was that it could happen, but we had to be confident that people would be safe. The BPI are brilliant and spent a lot of time on this to make sure it could be as safe as possible.”
What can we expect from the actual live performances on the night?
RA: “The artists have come forward with unbelievably creative visions for the show, and all of them are so uniquely different. Through all the hard decisions that we've had to make, and the challenges that we faced over the last year, when we started to see the visions for this year's BRITs, that's when we felt, ‘This is going to be spectacular!’. There are some really, really standout moments that we feel really proud of. We wouldn't want to spoil it for you, the best thing is to tune in on the night, and you'll see what they have lined up, but there are some really, really beautiful moments.”
What do you think the actual nominations shortlist says about the state of British music right now?
SW: “The voting academy is brilliant – it gets refreshed every year and it’s getting more and more diverse all the time. We didn't really know what was going to happen with the voting, but I have to say we were very, very excited about the diversity in the shortlist – seeing things like four out of the five nominees for Mastercard Abum Of The Year being female artists was exciting and brilliant. It’s just a really refreshing, exciting list of names, which we do think accurately reflects the year we've had – there’s some incredibly strong artists on there.”
RA: “We feel really proud. I mean, I don't mind admitting – and I don't think Selina will mind us admitting – that on the night we got the call about the nominations and we could have shed a tear. We felt so proud that, on the year that we were doing this role, the nominations really represented British music at its best. It was quite an emotional night for us.”
Last year there were a lot of female artists on the line-up, but not among the nominations. Do you view this year’s nominations as progress on the BRITs side, or is there still more work to be done?
SW: “Well, we do. I mean, just to touch on the gendered awards, when we embarked on this journey of the BRITs, we did think that one of the changes that we would make is to move on from the gendered awards, and we really passionately wanted to do that. And, for various reasons, it became clear that maybe we couldn't yet make that change. It felt like, by trying to do the right thing, we might actually end up with a less diverse shortlist. But we still think that that is the way to go. Surely, there's a way of celebrating outstanding artists without having to have those categories divided up in that way?”
It was something Sam Smith addressed, saying they felt excluded…
SW: “That was really sad for us. We love Sam; Sam’s an extraordinary artist and Sam wrote some beautiful, heartfelt words about their reaction to this and we actually agreed with every single word of it.”
So as to the reason that nothing changed, was it just a case that there wasn't the time to do it properly?
SW: “I think it's certainly something that's being looked at. The BPI are looking at a very far-reaching gender study, actually, and what more can be done to make sure that they get it right.”
RA: “From our side, this work could have happened last year, but none of us knew that the show would be happening, the pandemic took over and so, as Selina said, it would have had unintended consequences had we not done this properly.”
What was your reaction to Rina Sawayama’s questioning of BRITs and Mecrury Prize eligibility which led to a subsequent change in the criteria for awards inclusion?
SW: “Like with this other issue, obviously the BRITs is going to listen and wants to get it right. In that case, it was fantastic that they were able to do that. It was quite a long time before we were involved, actually, but she’s a brilliant artist and we’re really excited for her.”
There are always conspiracy theories that whichever major is running the BRITs is going to run away with all the awards. What would your message be to the industry who will say, ‘Oh, Universal will win everything’?
RA: “When it comes to awards, we have to keep reminding people that there's an academy, and it's the academy that vote for the awards. So there's no way that there's an influence from any chairperson running the BRITs. It's a totally democratic process; we feel very confident in our academy and the way they voted. And that's been reflected in the nominations. On the first committee meeting we had, everybody from all the labels all agreed that this show couldn't be like any other show. And so we have just shared in the same vision, and it's been really, really collaborative – there’s a very special group of people working on it.”
SW: “It's always been about getting the best possible show [for us]. And, actually, working with the other labels has been great. There is a committee that we've been chairing, and we know virtually everyone on it really well – there was only [label manager] Jeff Bell from Partisan that we didn't know, and he's been brilliant. It has been a very collaborative effort. We’re conscious that this is a show for the whole industry. There have been constraints in terms of the amount of music we can have live and things like that, because the performances have to be Covid-secure, there are some restraints in terms of how many performances we can have live in room. So we've had to work around availability, obviously, and artists being separated from their bands in different parts of the world. There's been all these kind of things to juggle - but us being Universal? It’s all been about what is the best possible BRITs that we can help to put together with this great team.”
Has that been the hardest part of pulling all of this together?
SW: “It's always difficult, but there have, obviously, been some quite big added logistical [challenges] this year, but you get through it. Just as much as there's been difficulties, equally, it's been fantastic to work with some people we don't normally work with and get some really inspirational ideas from all the labels. Everyone seems to share our vision to do a show that reflects the year we've had, it's also a celebration and a moment of optimism.”
What is your gauge for success in this most unusual of years?
RA: “I think TV ratings is one metric. But there are so many other ways that you can determine success. The winners on the night will determine success for us. The performances on the night will determine the success for us. The fact that the show is even happening in the year that's just happened is a metric for success. The fact that we're going to be the first [major] live event happening in the UK with an audience for music is a metric for success. Of course, we would like many, many people to watch this and not just through a TV metric, but also via social media and YouTube and all the ways that people do consume music now. David said this to us: ‘Feel proud of the show that you pulled together, feel proud of the artists that you have booked,’ and I think Selina and I can hold our head up high and say we're very proud that we've got to this point with the artists that we've got, and the nominations that we've got. What will happen will happen.”
SW: “The BRITs has the potential to represent so much this year. There’s a huge responsibility that goes with that. Beyond our industry, it’s a moment of celebration and optimism wrapped around music. Yes, things like viewing figures are in our minds, but those things are higher in our minds: that it can be a celebration and a moment of optimism as – please God! – the world starts to go back to some kind of normality.”
Where do you think the BRITs should go next?
SW: “The best answer to that question is moving away from the gendered awards, for one thing. But it's always a celebration of the extraordinary music that the UK produces. It is a hard question to answer this year, because it may be that where the BRITs goes next year is back to a more normal show. But I hope that we create some moments that get carried forward, and some new things that can get carried forward. There's been quite a lot of change that's been forced upon us, but it has created opportunities to do things differently. The set is very different from any set you will have seen before at the BRITs. This focus on the audience of music fans, rather than industry people sat at tables, is something very different. And we've got some incredible young artists performing like Arlo Parks. Ask us afterwards, but I think there will be some things that will mean the BRITs won't be the same ever again.”
RA: “I echo that 100%. And we wish whoever takes this on next year lot's of love!”
So does this mean you’re not up for round two?
RA: “[laughs] Selina and I never thought we'd be in this position, we never thought we'd have the opportunity to do something like this. We've done it in a year like no other and we feel very proud of what we've done – and that's a good way to end it! We’ve had a great time together haven’t we, Selina?”
SW: “We'll be looking back on this, hopefully, as an extraordinary moment in our lives that we've shared together, albeit as a one-off.”
This year’s statute was conceived in the spirit of sharing. With that in mind, who would you each gift a BRIT Award to?
SW: “Lots of people deserve one. But definitely Becky, and we also should say Sally [Wood, BRIT Awards executive producer].”
RA: “We should give her a trophy – maybe we should both give her the trophy! As well as being the producer of the show, she’s been our therapist and the most calming influence, I can't even tell you what a wonderful person she is. Whatever time of day or night she is on the phone to you talking you off a ledge. She's just wonderful.”
SW: “[And one award for] this lady!”
RA: “Right back at you, Selina.”
Why would you gift it to Becky, Selina?
SW: “I couldn't have done this without Becky. She has made what has been at times a very challenging experience also joyful.”
RA: “Working with Selina has taught me so much. I feel that I've learned so much from Selina – we've both been on a journey together and that's made us stronger. I've made a really good friend out of this and that's an amazing thing. So, ditto, I would give my trophy to you, Selina. I actually thought she was going to give it to her postman!”
SW: “He deserves one as well.”