Britpop is back – and so are Blur.
The reunited mainstay of the ‘90s movement that ruled the U.K. charts and led to the wider ‘Cool Britannia’ movement — ahem, with Oasis, of course — recently played their biggest shows ever at the 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium.
But proof that it’s not just about nostalgia arrived as Blur’s comeback album, “The Ballad of Darren,” debuted at No.1 on the U.K. Albums Chart last week.
The album shifted over 44,000 copies in its first week, according to the Official Charts Company, despite being announced too late to be bundled with Wembley ticket sales. And Jennifer Ivory, managing director of Blur’s label Parlophone, says the success is “testament to how much people want to listen to a new Blur album.”
“Everyone’s been blown away by the album from the get-go,” Ivory tells Variety. “It’s not just appreciation for Blur being back, it’s appreciation for the new music as well. If it wasn’t backed by a new album then it might have seemed too nostalgic, but this feels like a resurgence.”
Indeed, Blur’s U.K. gigs have been notable for attracting a young teenage audience alongside ‘90s veterans and Ivory says wider interest in the entire era – including big reunion shows by a number of other Britpop bands – has been useful for the campaign.
“Maybe that’s what we don’t have anymore,” she says. “It’s a particular scene, so that feels exciting. No disrespect to any of those bands but Blur are in a league of their own, in my opinion.”
The way in which people have consumed music has changed significantly since Blur last released a studio album, “The Magic Whip,” in 2015. But, while only 6% of the first-week total for “The Ballad of Darren” came from streams, Ivory says all the major DSPs have supported the campaign. She says the band’s return has also “heated up” the band’s catalog across the board, with daily streams rising by 100% since the Wembley shows, and plays surging in the 18-24 demographic. Ivory predicts the band will surpass 3 billion streams across its catalog before the end of 2023.
The band concluded its U.K. dates with a BBC Radio Theatre gig broadcast on Radio 2 and the BBC iPlayer, and a performance of the new album in full at London’s Eventim Apollo. The Apollo show was also livestreamed by Driift and Driift CEO Ric Salmon tells Variety his company “sold thousands of livestream tickets, with 10% of buyers from Central and South America, while the level of engagement was extraordinary, with an average watch time per user of 65 minutes.”
Blur has remaining tour dates in Europe and Japan, but no plans as yet to play in the U.S., where the band has only fitfully threatened to equal its U.K. success. Ivory – who was herself a rare American Blur megafan during the ‘90s, and says getting to work with the band is the result of “25 years of very slow manifestation!” – is confident “Ballad” will become a success in America. Lead single “The Narcissist” has become the first Blur song in 20 years to reach the U.S. Alternative Airplay chart.
Ivory says she has “no idea” if the success will prompt the band to make the reunion more permanent — “They’re very happy, that’s all I know” — but says the return has been extensively documented by a film crew, so there may be further releases to come.
And the chart triumph also gives a boost to the storied Parlophone label, which was restructured earlier this year as part of a wider Warner Music Group revamp. Parlophone is now part of a coalition of labels that sits under Warner Records U.K. president Joe Kentish.
Ivory says plans are underway to create “a roster that is a bit more streamlined and has more identity,” but says Parlophone will continue to thrive under the new structure.
“Everyone wants Parlophone to succeed and we will do that together,” she says. “It’s one of the most iconic labels, so let’s get it right…”
Another U.K. artist enjoying huge success – albeit at a very different stage of their career – is 23-year-old singer-songwriter Maisie Peters.
Peters’ second album, “The Good Witch,” also went straight in at No.1 in the U.K. albums chart last month, making her the youngest British female chart-topper since Ella Henderson in 2014.
“The Good Witch” sold over 20,000 copies in its first week to become a rare recent British breakthrough success and Peters’ manager, Bobby Havens of Grumpy Old Management, says it is “vindication” for the star’s hard work.
“She’s not been a music industry darling,” says Havens. “It’s been a cult thing – Maisie’s fanbase is very much her own and they sing every word of every song. I know it’s a cliché to say you must come and see her live but, with her, it really is the case.”
Fortunately, Peters’ live audience has been expanding exponentially of late. Havens says key turning points were a sold-out April show at the 5,000-capacity Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith, West London – well-attended by industry taste-makers – and her triumphant set on Glastonbury Festival’s Pyramid Stage in June. Peters’ single, “Lost the Breakup,” has since been added to the A-list at BBC Radio 1.
Peters is yet to enjoy a Top 40 song in her homeland, but Havens says her strong following on TikTok and Instagram has helped the songs feel ubiquitous, even when they haven’t taken off to the same extent on streaming services.
“The hit singles thing feels like an algorithmic trick sometimes,” he says. “There’s so much luck involved. But she’s a natural on social media – whenever Maisie speaks to the audience, it’s our biggest bump, more than any promo. It’s also something you can do every day. There are upsides and downsides to that, but when someone enjoys it as much as Maisie does, it’s good.”
Peters has also been boosted by her connection with fellow Grumpy Old Management client Ed Sheeran. The superstar signed Peters to his Gingerbread Man imprint (which goes through Atlantic Records) and she also supported him on sections of his world tour.
“In real terms, that’s been massive,” says Havens, who works alongside Sheeran’s manager Stuart Camp. “Everywhere we played with Ed, we’re now playing much, much bigger rooms. And the way Ed has been with Maisie – how hard he works and the way he is around people – has been such a beacon. She has genuinely done the ‘What would Ed do?’ thing.”
Havens is hoping that will help Peters crack the U.S., where she is signed to Elektra Records. She will be in America for the next three months, with her U.S. tour kicking off at Chicago House of Blues on August 5.
“America is a tough nut to crack,” says Havens. “And because it’s so big, no one knows how to do it. Our thing is we’ll just work and keep going and hopefully next time we come, we’ll be playing much bigger rooms.”
Havens says Peters has had interest from Nashville artists and songwriters looking to collaborate (“She thinks of herself as a country writer because of the storytelling; however it ends up stylistically, that’s what it is in its core”) and may explore that as an avenue before starting work on her third album.
And with a sold-out show at London’s 12,500-capacity Wembley Arena set for November 3, Havens believes Peters could be the next big U.K. success story.
“We always set targets and we always said album number three would be the ‘superstar’ album,” laughs Havens. “There’s certainly no ceiling on it. She’s played every level now. She’s played the Pyramid Stage, she’s played Wembley Stadium [with Sheeran], she’s done the lot, so she’s ready.”
Veteran music exec Ged Doherty – formerly of Sony Music, the BPI, BMG and others – has made a successful transition to the movie industry, as co-founder (alongside actor Colin Firth) of production company, Raindog Films.
And Doherty is now hoping to help more music stories transfer to the silver screen, following the success of Raindog’s “Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis)” documentary about the design studio that produced classic album covers for the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Wings.
The documentary cracked the U.K. box office Top 20 on release, following similar success in America, and has sparked renewed interest in the story of Hipgnosis’ Aubrey “Po” Powell and the late Storm Thorgerson. Doherty worked with the duo during his music industry career, giving them their first music video commission when he was managing U.K. singer Paul Young.
“How you see them portrayed in the film is exactly how my dealings with them were,” Doherty tells Variety. “Slightly bonkers, full-on, incredibly creative. It’s a great and very funny story – and a poignant one too.”
Although Hipgnosis’ heyday was in the vinyl era of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when album art enjoyed much more exposure than it does in the streaming age, Doherty says the film – directed by Anton Corbijn – has been attracting and inspiring younger audiences.
“If there’s a takeaway from the film, it’s that you can change the world if you’re brave enough to stand up and try things that are different,” he says. “As [journalist and “Squaring the Circle” contributor] David Hepworth put it, it’s the story of two people that never played a note, but changed music for ever.”
Doherty says his music industry connections came in handy on the film in terms of licensing music (“People say, ‘How did you get the music of Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel in an independent documentary? And I go, ‘Well, I’m old enough to know all the managers!’”).
It also features a stellar cast list of contributors, including McCartney, Jimmy Page and Noel Gallagher. The film even manages to do what no concert promoter has been able to do and reunite warring Pink Floyd members David Gilmour and Roger Waters, who – along with Nick Mason – reminisce about the legendary sleeves for “The Dark Side of the Moon,” “Wish You Were Here” and “Animals” (“Thank God they did their interviews over a year ago, before what’s happened recently!”).
Doherty says Raindog has three further, as-yet-unannounced music documentaries on its slate, and recently announced it is teaming up with Jamie Foxx’s Foxxhole Productions to make the first-ever full-length documentary on legendary singer Luther Vandross. Dawn Porter is on board as director.
“Luther’s story has never been told,” says Doherty, who worked several Vandross albums during his time at Sony. “There’s never been something which went into his childhood; his influences growing up; starting up on ‘Sesame Street;’ his influence on David Bowie; all the incredible artists he produced… He wrote the most beautiful lyrics and the most beautiful music and he has the most beautiful story.”
Doherty says the success of “Squaring the Circle” shows the interest in music documentaries continues, despite a recent “glut” of docs.
“You wouldn’t think anyone would be interested in a documentary about an obscure album art design company in the ‘70s, but people absolutely love it because they love the story,” he says. “So, we’re trying to focus on either really interesting stories that stand up on their own or artists that have never been done.”
The shortlist for the 2023 Mercury Prize for the U.K. and Ireland album of the year was announced last week – and one label has already emerged as a clear winner.
EMI Records has secured three slots on the 12-strong list, meaning it provides one quarter of the nominated albums, thanks to nods for Loyle Carner’s “Hugo,” Olivia Dean’s “Messy” and Jessie Ware’s “That! Feels Good!”
It’s another landmark for the new era at the Universal label, now under the joint leadership of co-presidents Rebecca Allen and Jo Charrington. The label reclaimed its status as the U.K. market share market-leader from Sony’s RCA in 2022.
Charrington hails an “incredible week” for the label, adding that she and Allen “couldn’t be more proud of Jessie, Loyle and Olivia for being shortlisted for this prestigious award.”
“Although all three artists are at different stages in their careers, the thread that binds them together is that they all lead from the front,” Allen tells Variety. “Their artistic brilliance, their unwavering vision and their collaborative approach to the teams they work with, set them apart from other artists. Working passionately, with dedication and ambition, these artists bring a fire to the label – and we strive to be as brilliant as the artists we represent.”
Despite this year’s domination, EMI has not lifted the Mercury Prize since Benjamin Clementine’s “At Least for Now” won in 2015 (when the label was known as Virgin EMI). We’ll have to wait until September 7 – when the ceremony takes place in London – to see if they can break that streak.