Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Ed Sheeran and the problem with the BBC Sound Of poll

As we write, the horse-trading, canvassing and plotting has probably already begun. In three short months, the focus will be on the BBC Sound Of 2012 poll and its annointed ones. There may be dozens – nay, hundreds – of …

Wed, Oct 5, 2011, 09:44


As we write, the horse-trading, canvassing and plotting has probably already begun. In three short months, the focus will be on the BBC Sound Of 2012 poll and its annointed ones. There may be dozens – nay, hundreds – of outlets which tell you about new music and acts, but the BBC’s annual poll has become the favourite go-to source for many people. It’s the poll of polls, the one which rounds up the selections of taste-makers, early adopters, assorted journalists, broadcasters and commentators who think they’re taste-makers and early adopters and journalists and broadcasters who rely on PR companies and record labels to tell them who the Sound Of 2012 will be. It’s also the poll that those who work in the music business put a lot of store by because of its high profile and influence. If your act features in this poll, you’ve got a jump on the pack. You’ll get airplay and media coverage because everyone wants to be part of the happy story.

When OTR readers have a look at 2011′s chosen acts, they’ll probably nod their heads in recognition at most of the names. However, few of them bar Jessie J have become household names beyond the constituency of dedicated music fans. In fairness, you will not hear the masses going “yes” about The Naked & Famous, Jamie Woon, James Blake or Anna Calvi. It hasn’t been a cracker of a year for Clare Maguire or Esben & The Witch. Jai Paul spent most of 2011 staying quiet as his label XL sat on any releases (despite talk of a March 2011 release date for his debut album), with talk now of 2012 being the year we hear more from him than the brilliant “BTSTU”. Mona and The Vaccines, meanwhile, are still mid-bill acts who haven’t quite done what was expected of them a year ago.

Of course, there are several caveats which need to be added right away to the previous paragraph. The definition of “making it” differs from act to act. The very fact that all of those listed in the Sound Of 2011 poll are probably not back working at their local Burger King is a sign of success in the age of reduced record label largesse. It takes a hell of a lot of time for an act to develop and finetune its craft so to expect a narrative arc where a band emerge in January and are stars by Christmas is a little wrong-headed, no matter how the Sound Of poll may subtlely pitch it. And yes, I should apply the same level of scrutiny to my own predictions for 2011, though these caveats have always been applied to any such OTR survey.

But when you have a look at the new acts who have had a fantastic 2011 and look at the Sound Of 2011 list, there’s one glaring omission. No doubt about it, Ed Sheeran has had a fantastic 2011. He’s been the breakthrough act who has not only made some decent cash from gigging, but he has also sold a stack of records, a feat which does stop you in your tracks nowadays. He may not have sold as many as Adele (who the hell has?), but he’s sold plenty enough to keep him and his team happy.

Yet Sheeran was not tipped by that BBC poll. Maybe some of the tipsters gave him the nod, but not enough to get him on the list or even shortlist. As far as the BBC poll went, Sheeran was not at the races. Yet he was out there, plugging away and building a fanbase. No fuss, no drama, just gig after gig where he won over people. I remember a couple of people talking about him at last year’s In the City festival in Manchester as one to watch and his name seemed to come up at every single panel at this year’s Great Escape as an example of how to do things in this new music business era. No hype, no bullshit, no flowery press releases with false claims, no attempts to curry favour with hacks and radio DJs: just gigs, self-released EPs and working on that fanbase. When the time was right for a large record deal to take his early work and turn it into something else, Atlantic came along and, boom, Sheeran was ready for his close-up. He’d already done the heavy lifting so Atlantic were just coming along with a JCB.

What Sheeran’s success shows is that polls like the Sound Of fandango are not the be-all and end-all of the tipping game. There are thousands of acts who never make the cut – and thousands who will never feature in the despatches regardless – but there are also acts like Sheeran, acts who operate under the radar, acts who will come good without the nod from those tipsters.

When you look at the Sound Of 2012 finalists next January, remember that most of them are the result of high-level canvassing and plamasing. They’re acts who have been groomed for this moment by record labels and promotion teams who already have the ear of those voters, most of whom are not in the new music trenches every day of the year. It’s why you can usually predict with a great degree of certainty what acts will feature (right now, I’d be putting a wad of cash on Lana Del Rey, Clock Opera, The Jezabels and Emile Sande to show up on that list).

But remember that there are also plenty of acts like Ed Sheeran out there, acts getting on with the business of writing songs, playing gigs, making friends and developing their game without giving two damns about these polls. Sure, it would be nice to make the cut, but it doesn’t matter in the long run. As election candidates are fond of saying, the real poll is the one on election day and election day for acts like Sheeran is their next gig.