Radio 2's Jeff Smith on the power of Piano Room for artists including U2, Depeche Mode & Cat Burns

Radio 2's Jeff Smith on the power of Piano Room for artists including U2, Depeche Mode & Cat Burns

U2’s Bono & The Edge, Depeche Mode and Cat Burns have been unveiled as the latest artists for BBC Radio 2’s Piano Room at Maida Vale studios in March and April.

It follows the second instalment of Piano Room Month, which took place from January 30 to February 24 during Ken Bruce’s morning show, and featured stars including Ellie Goulding, Raye, Freya Ridings, Simply Red, Pink, Jessie Ware, Suede, Jake Shears and Stormzy. 

For Radio 2’s regular Piano Room slot during the morning show, each artist performs three tracks - a new song, one of their well-known tracks and a classic cover version accompanied by an orchestra. 

During the dedicated month of Piano Room throughout February, each performance was available on iPlayer and an hour-long highlights special aired on Radio 2 each Sunday night. The series was followed by a Pink Piano Room special on BBC Two, featuring more live songs from the Music Week cover star. 

These latest performances from U2, Depeche Mode and Cat Burns, which have already been recorded and filmed, will be broadcast during Gary Davies’ show (Monday to Friday, 9.30am-12pm) and on BBC Sounds. They will also be available on BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds. 

Gary Davies presents Radio 2’s mid-morning show from today (March 6) - ahead of Vernon Kay starting in May - and unveils the new weekday pop quiz, Ten To The Top, which launches at 10.30am as a replacement for PopMaster.

The Piano Room with U2’s Bono & The Edge will air on Thursday, March 16 and their classic cover is a track by ABBA. On March 17, U2 will release Songs of Surrender, a new collection of songs from across the band’s catalogue, re-recorded and reimagined.

An hour-long special of Bono and The Edge’s Piano Room performance, including an extended interview, will be available on BBC Sounds later in March. 

The Edge said: "We’ve been seen wandering the corridors of BBC Maida Vale on more than one occasion. The first time we performed here was a radio session recording of Sunday Bloody Sunday and a song called Surrender, back in 1983.” 

Bono added: "We have played music in this room many times over the years… In fact, it was 40 years ago - almost to the day - that we first met our longtime creative director Willie Williams right here… in the hallowed halls of the BBC Maida Vale… You have to be at your best here."

Depeche Mode’s Piano Room will be broadcast on Thursday, April 6 and their classic cover is a track by Scott Walker, with their session accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra. The recording was Dave Gahan and Martin Gore’s first ever time performing at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios, but also their first UK performance since the death of keyboard player Andy Fletcher last year

Cat Burns’ Piano Room will air on Thursday, April 20. Her classic cover is a track by Ariana Grande, with the session accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra. 

Ahead of the latest big name acts for Piano Room, Radio 2 head of music Jeff Smith reveals the impact of the Maida Vale sessions and the wider opportunities across BBC TV and BBC Sounds for artists…

How has Piano Room Month performed for Radio 2 this year?

“Last year we had over a million plays on iPlayer and over a million on YouTube, 3.3 million overall [including social media]. It's looking like it's going to surpass that, so it's done really well. We’re really delivering to a massive range of audiences on all sorts of platforms with this great digital content, it's really a key part of what we're trying to do at the moment. And, of course, we've extended this year even more into television versions of it. For the first time this year, we did the [TV] extension with Pink, and that was a really great opportunity to do more and push that into BBC Two. 

“I think we're all delighted about what we've done in terms of the delivery of the content, the figures and numbers. It’s been tremendous to get that real appreciation from artists when they come in, they really love working with the BBC Concert Orchestra. I think from the point of view of music fans, it’s really working on that level as well. Not just the artists but also the range of covers they've chosen as well - some of the older artists have chosen contemporary songs. So we’ve worked with them to work out what songs they would do, as well as their own songs. You get a real sense of enthusiasm and excitement from the artists about doing this. This is something special and something that stands out for people, it really does deliver for them.”

What was the impact of that Pink TV special?

“It went out on a Saturday night [on BBC2] in a very competitive slot. It was on about 700,000, so I feel really positive that we can also extend the property that is Piano Room [to TV] and create some content there. It was also on over 100,000 [streams] on iPlayer. So, these are good numbers, and I think it's something that artists and labels can look at as an opportunity to work with us a little bit more. Pink really did work out in all sorts of ways, and I worked closely with teams at RCA and Roger Davies in terms of management to deliver that, and we got the very best out of it.”

And it must have had a positive impact on Pink’s album sales for Trustfall, which debuted at No.1 last month?

“It’s interesting, yeah, you will hear Trustfall by Pink on Radio 2. I think Radio 2 had a big part to play in that success story, but wasn't entirely what drove it. Obviously, we went for the editorial content, the impact of her as this phenomenal international artist and gave her the opportunity to show off all that she could do, including that amazing cover of Nothing Compares 2 U as well. Pink was particularly enthused about having the BBC Concert Orchestra on those songs as well, that made a real difference.”

Were there any particular highlights for you this time?

“Where to begin? I mean, in terms of Piano Room Month, one of my key things was to begin with Richard Marx - a classic Radio 2 heritage artist - and end on Stormzy, the new face of music from the UK, relatively, to our audience, known a bit more widely by the broader audiences. But in the midst of that to have not just interesting, exciting new artists like Raye, but artists who are established like Ellie Goulding covering folk songs like She Moved Through The Fair - I loved that, what Ellie did was a particular highlight for me. Also, at the very end, Stormzy doing Get Here by Oleta Adams, originally a Brenda Russell song, that was a really inspired cover, which lends itself to a slightly more singing voice from Stormzy that you might not have heard before. Then we had Haircut 100 doing As It Was… Whether it was covers or original songs, the whole thing came to life this year and it was brilliant. I was really happy with the first year, but I didn't know how it would work this year because when you put it together, you kind of think to yourself, ‘Gosh, can we surpass what we did previously?’. But the general view from the audiences, and the numbers we've seen, seems to be that it met with a very positive response across the board.”

Are you confident that Piano Room Month has now become an established platform for artists?

“It does feel like that, doesn't it? It feels like that to me. It's two years of Piano Room Month, this is the second year. We have been doing Piano Room [as a morning show performance feature] for a good six or so years. It began with Elton John's piano [donated by the star to the BBC] on the sixth floor here at Wogan House. We did lots of really notable sessions, they were phenomenal. But actually to extend this into a space like Maida Vale, and be able to take over a studio and deliver this amazing content with this incredible orchestra as well as the Steinway piano, it was just a glorious opportunity. And just having a TV studio set up for a month always struck me as an opportunity we could do more with, hence the reason why the Pink activity happened. It also allows us during that month of February to record other things.”

And Piano Room is very flexible as a format, isn’t it?

“Yeah, Piano Room is a Radio 2 brand property. It exists within the morning show, but also plays out tracks across the network. To the credit of our live music team led by Dan Roberts, all of these tracks that we build out of that are amazing productions, they sound as good as commercial recordings. Live can sometimes struggle with that, but in our own studios with our own orchestra and our own production and working with these artists, we're delivering really great quality content. It can then stretch across the whole network and create more content off the back of that, especially programming.”

Will Piano Room continue when Vernon Kay takes over the morning show?

“We have no plans to change from what we’re doing at the moment with Piano Room.”

What can you say about these big Piano Room sessions that are coming up from U2 (Bono & The Edge), Depeche Mode and Cat Burns? Are they doing the same thing as other acts?

“Piano Room fits a certain format, which is primarily based around the idea that you have one of your own classic tracks, a new track that you've got coming up, and then you've got to cover. So we've got an amazing set of artists coming up over the next couple of months, kicking off with U2. Bono and The Edge have come into Maida Vale and will play out with three songs. With them, their new recording is actually a new version of an old song [as part of the Songs Of Surrender campaign], that's what you'll get there. So there was a slight change on things, and it's tremendous to have them working with a section of the BBC Concert Orchestra. 

“In April, we've got Depeche Mode, and they've done an amazing job with a similar set-up. Also, I was really knocked out when we started playing Cat Burns’ Go, it must have been a year ago. She's done a really amazing set for us as well. So you've got the classic or iconic artists like U2 and Depeche Mode, and somebody new who's coming through in Cat Burns.”

Finally, how do you go about getting such big names on board for Piano Room?

“We’re Radio 2, this is a phenomenally huge radio station, not just in scale, but also the heritage. I’ve been at Radio 1 and I've been at Capital, both great stations. But Radio 2 has an amazing resonance for people now. For artists who have grown up with radio, it's so well known and so established. What we've also done is just had better and improved relationships with artists, labels and management. I saw quite a few managers and execs from record labels at Maida Vale over the last month. I think people are starting to realise how important and how powerful Radio 2 is for music. 

“Artists recognise creativity and the creative freedom that they can have working with the BBC. Something like Piano Room, it really sums that up because they're allowed to be really creative. When we talked to Bono and The Edge about doing the U2 one, they knew what sort of thing they wanted. We worked with the orchestra to deliver just five cellos and the piano, and there's a beauty and power to that. As a head of music, or a producer or the team visualising it, it is an important factor, working closely with the artists. I'm sure they'd all say that it was a pleasure to work with our teams.”

Subscribers can read our Pink cover feature here.

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