The Big Interview: Max Lousada

The Big Interview: Max Lousada

As Max Lousada starts his new role as CEO of recorded music, Warner Music Group, revisit his Music Week Big Interview from February 2016, when the then-BRITs chairman said the Awards, “shouldn’t be afraid of risk taking”...

There are two types of BRITs controversy. There are the headline-grabbing, tabloid-titillating 'moments', the times when something goes horribly wrong but it plays out so deliciously right - from Jarvis wiggling his bum in front of a messianic Michael Jackson to last year's fall and rise of Madonnna. 

Then, on the think piece/broadsheet side of the journalistic fence, there is the ongoing debate/criticism of the show as too safe, as a showcase for only the biggest and most obvious acts, not the true kaleidoscope of British music.

Current BRITs committee chairman Max Lousada (day job: chairman and CEO of Warner Music UK) welcomes both.

He knows that the fact that there are "things that could only happen at the BRITs" is good for viewing figures - even if they can't be planned and, at the time, can seem like disasters rather than the thing people will remember in 20 years. He embraces, to use an apposite phrase for 2016’s event, the chaos and the calm.

And he says the BRITs should be debated and criticised, because it's important and that those who do throw Britbats “feel strongly enough to have an opinion”.

It is his second year at the helm of the UK industry’s big night and he’s pleased (but not wholly satisfied) with the progress made in year one. This time around he has reintroduced an audience pit, because he believes it will help the artists with their performance, and has had to navigate the delicate question of how to pay tribute to David Bowie (“Respect and simplicity” are the key words).

And then, on February 25, he will wake up and it will all have been a dream. Or possibly a nightmare. Or a dream with one moment that will give him nightmares and the rest of us agree was the best bit of the evening.

What are your memories of the BRITs as a fan at home and a newcomer to the industry?

I think, growing up, the BRITs always seemed to be this wild party that reflected decadence and music success in the mainstream. My musical tastes were a little more alternative, so it was always like a guilty pleasure, and about these artists who were so unattainable. And there was this chaos, whether it was Prescott, or Brandon Block or Jarvis, it seemed anarchic. It was pop culture meets rock n roll meets an awards show. And it was quite often all about the unexpected. Certain things only happen on the BRITs.

It also felt quite unattainable, there’s this whole thing going on and I can’t ever imagine actually going.

And then the first time I did go to the BRITs, it was at Earls Court, I can’t remember exactly what year, but I do remember that I was on the last table, at the very back of the room. No, I mean literally at the very back of the room! I think a reflection of your career is how you move through the room at the BRITs, hopefully ending up somewhere near the front. But I know for sure that I had better visibility of the toilets that year than I did of the stage. 

But did you enjoy it?

You know, it still felt like a big occasion, and there were always some standout performances. I think for anyone who likes music and is passionate about music, having a selection of really great, popular talent is a fun environment. 

What sort of BRITs did you inherit last year?

I inherited a BRITs that was losing audience, and although they had made some great strides, there still wasn’t necessarily an appreciation from the artists as to the impact it could have as a global platform.

I think the BRITs Critics Choice Award that David Joseph brought in was a great way of showcasing new artists and already has a very successful track record.

So I inherited an awards show that was still important but needed an injection. And that injection involved bringing in a new team, from different disciplines, realising that it’s a visual and audio show and that we have to hold an audience from ITV. This is ITV at 8pm; it’s not the Jools Holland slot.

And we have to deliver a show that’s truthful to what the academy votes on, that’s a reflection of popularity to that audience.

I inherited a BRITs that was losing audience, and although they had made some great strides, there still wasn’t necessarily an appreciation from the artists as to the impact it could have as a global platform.

Max Lousada

That was one of the reasons to bring back Ant and Dec. Some people saw that as a safe move, but it was really about sustaining audience so that we could then be a bit more interesting visually, and do things like a Kanye record with flamethrowers and a few expletives – I think it was 53 in the end.

I spoke to Ant and Dec about this and they understood that their role was to bring an audience in, keep an audience, and allow me to show Royal Blood, and Kanye, and play songs that maybe people hadn’t heard from established artists.

And I think some of the drama, some of the ‘it only happens at the BRITs’ moments, has made the global brand of the BRITs much more of a conversation when I’ve been speaking to talent. It’s also become more global through social media – it was the biggest social media show of last year. So what we have, I think, is a show that delivers a UK audience but also has a ripple effect as a global platform. 

How much of what you wanted to achieve in year one did you feel you actually did achieve when you did your review?

I felt like we’d achieved an immersive experience in the room. I wanted to achieve a purity, so that each artist had their own production rather than having an over-branded set. There have been years when the set has recreated Glastonbury etc, but I didn’t want the branding of the BRITs to interfere or compromise artist performance, and I do think each performance was a clean chapter within the overall book.

I did still struggle with the energy for the artists, and whether they were playing to the room or playing to the TV. So this year we’ve introduced a kind of mosh pit/audience pit so the artists can interact and hopefully the performance levels will rise. It’s quite hard to just go 1-2-3-4 and off you go, to a semi-live audience. I just wanted to really support the bands. That’s why I brought in an intro as well. Previously it was, Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the BRITs: bang. And the room hadn’t warmed up. But an intro gives a sense of occasion, which the bands and the audience can feed off.

Viewing figures went up, with an average of 5.8m and a peak of 6.8m. How important are those numbers to you?

Honestly, I didn’t realise how important they were until the next day. I was only focussed on delivering a really good show. I guess I knew that the by-product of that would be that it would be more popular, and that that popularity would be measured across traditional viewing figures and online, social interaction. What was really pleasing is that all of those metrics grew, and considering most traditional TV formats aren’t growing, that was encouraging. We’ll have to see what the numbers are this year, but certainly I want a show that has an element of popularity, but is also truthful to the artists and what they want to do. So it’s a balance.

How different an event was it for you personally, in terms of your BRITs experience?

It’s wildly different. At the beginning of the year, you’re rested, you’ve come out of Christmas, but instead of thinking about what you might do at half term with your children, you’re facing a world of let-downs and disasters and it’s just huge. You have six or seven international acts coming with 50 people. The logistics, the amount of moving parts, it’s incredible. It’s stressful, exciting, creative and a nightmare. It’s also incredibly rewarding – but a couple of weeks after.

How are the performers and selected and booked?

There’s a BRITs committee, which is made up of [XL’s] Ben Beardsworth, who represented the independent sector, [Atlantic’s] Ben cook, who represented Warners, [Columbia’s], Mark Terry who represented Sony and [Capitol’s] Nick Raphael who represented Universal. And that committee will have one or two changes of personnel per show.

We look at who’s been nominated, we look at sales, because the show is a reflection of success and one of the metrics of success is sales. Then we look at the balance of the show: Is there enough UK talent? Are there enough surprises? Is there enough of a mix of genres? And who’s available and willing to do it?!

This year, the two breakthrough acts in terms of albums were James Bay and Jess Glynne, so it felt appropriate to have them on. Adele has been incredibly important to the industry as a whole, so she needed to be there. Everybody’s been surprised and pleased by the reinvention of Justin Bieber, so that felt right. And then you look at the balance, you see Little Mix getting two or three nominations, you look at the surprise of Rhianna coming back and you look at the Weeknd, who’s made a really creatively interesting record and it makes for a different musical offering that becomes part of the journey of the show.

Where does the balance of power lie in terms of having to persuade people to do it and people queuing up to do it?

I think when you’re looking at more heritage acts, there is more of a conversation. I think contemporary acts who are nominated feel like the BRITs is a real honour and they love doing it. There are a lot of huge names that have been really successful this year, but we haven’t been able to accommodate them. We’d love to have had them, but there are only eight or nine slots. In comparison to the Grammys it’s an incredibly short show. 

Madonna’s fall: what was your first reaction?

My first reaction was disbelief and worry about her health. And the room went silent. Everyone looked at each other to say, Did that happen? I’d also seen how hard she’d worked the day before. She’d been such a perfectionist. She’d been hitting every cue. It was so impressive watching this icon still being as thorough as anyone could be. And I was sad for the audience not to get to see that and for her to have not done the performance that she wanted to do.

I guess it reflects the yin and yang of the BRITs in so much as you want everything to go as smoothly, but the moments that everyone talks about the next day and remembers for years are when it deviates from the script, and goes a bit rogue…

True, and you know what, this is the music business. It’s not a group of accountants celebrating a new version of Excel. It’s the music business, it’s anarchic and passionate and there’s an element of risk, and that should be reflected in the show.

Are the BRITs and Adele all friends again? The last time she was on that stage she famously flipped the bird…

I can’t talk for Adele, of course, but I think her performance of Someone Like You [in 2011] was one of the BRITs standout performance. I think for a lot of people that was a defining moment that took her career into a different place. So I think she feels a real relationship with the BRITs, and that’s on both sides.

How will you be paying tribute to David Bowie? Because it’s widely believed that the messages coming from people closest to him indicate there shouldn’t be anything especially overblown, but of course the British public will be looking to this showcase event and expecting you to do something. How are you handling that?

Well firstly we register that David Bowie passing is a huge loss to us all, to the music industry and culturally to the UK. And it’s also very recent, too soon to have a full-on celebration of his life. Respect and simplicity are words that we’re using to put something together. We want to mark it in a respectful way rather than setting off fireworks or whatever. It feels too soon for that sort of tribute. Hopefully people will have a time of reflection and be able to listen and take in some of his incredible body of work. It is a balance, and being very honest, we’ve looked at various creative directions and we’ve settled on one that we think is a good balance and will be a simple, respectful moment in the show. And we’re also being transparent and respectful with his family and management.

This is the music business. It’s not a group of accountants celebrating a new version of Excel. It’s the music business, it’s anarchic and passionate and there’s an element of risk.

Max Lousada

How important has the Critics Choice Award become, for a young artist and for the industry in general?

Well it has a great strike rate! So, as it continues to do that, it is important. Having said that, it doesn’t preclude any other young artists from becoming successful. I think in a market where you’re trying to grab people’s attention, any silver bullet that helps do that is a positive. The ability to propel, Adele, Florence, James Bay, Jack Garratt has been fantastic for them. On the flipside, Jess Glynne was the year’s biggest breakthrough without it, Ed Sheeran’s done pretty well without it.

How important is winning a BRIT in terms of sales or a career boost?

I think it is important, and it is important to be on the show. It allows not just the incremental sales effect on the night of the show and immediately after the show, but it also allows an element of stature by being ‘Previous BRIT winner’. It has an effect in campaign, and it has an effect on the brand throughout a career.

What sort of legacy do you want to leave Jason [Iley, chairman of Sony Music UK] when he takes over next year?

Momentum. I want the legacy to be that it’s still important to the broadcaster, it’s still important to the industry, but it’s important that it continues to evolve. We might need to keep looking at how the academy’s put together, at how we reflect new music. We shouldn’t be afraid of risk taking and we shouldn’t be afraid of sustaining a big audience.

What do you make of the criticism that comes from some quarters that the BRITs is too safe?

Well I think the nature of popular music is that it’s quite safe. But you can always take risks. Sometimes you want people to take risks and those people aren’t keen to do so in that format. And you have to view it through the lens of the people it’s trying to appeal to, and realise that it can’t do everything and sustain success. I think we can always do better, it should always be criticised, it should always be debated and create a furore and I hope those who criticise it feel strongly enough to have an opinion. I encourage the debate.

How will you feel on the 25th?

Last year on the day after, I had a board presentation. This year I don’t. I’ll feel like the last person to leave the concert. Sitting there either looking back at the success and the smiles, or staring at the rubbish on the floor. And then life goes on.

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