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Here's Some Proof The BBC Sound of Poll Predicts Neither Critical Or Commercial Success

The longlist for 2015 has been released, but what’s rarely discussed is how good the music from the artists featured on it actually is.

af sam wolfson
01 december 2014, 11:08am

The BBC have announced their longlist for Sound of 2015, and it’s probably a better list than in recent years. Shura and Shamir, like many other buzz artists of the last few years, borrow heavily from 90s R&B culture, but both have found novel twists on it. Excitingly, the stars of Noisey’s Grime Week, Novelist and Stormzy, both feature - described as “lyrically slick underground grime” and “neo-grime rap”, respectively.

Elsewhere the Sound of 2015 list is essentially the same as last few years - George Ezra is replaced by James Bay, Royal Blood by Slaves, King Krule by SOAK etc. Let's face it, it's a panel vote and most people only like music they can snog to so it'll probably go to James Bay (“captivating acoustic folk”).

A lot have people have discussed the mixed track-record the list has had in predicting successes. For every Sam Smith and Adele - huge globe-straddling artists who topped this list - there has been a Little Boots, Ella Eyre, A*M*E or Arlissa; artists who just failed to deliver on the hype.

James Bay

But what’s rarely discussed is how good the music these artists make actually is. This is after all, an award voted by critics and tastemakers and so they are voting not just for the artists they think will do well in future years, but artists they think make half-decent songs.

Yet those same critics never to seem to reward the artists they vote for at the start of the year in their end of year top albums lists.

Here's some statistical proof for that. I’ve been generous and taken not just every artist that has made the BBC’s top 5 shortlist of acts in the last few years, but every act since the sound poll started in 2003 that has been featured in the 15-strong longlist (since 2010) and top 10 acts (2003-2009). Excluding this year’s list, that’s 145 acts ranging from the huge (Skrillex) to the cool (Azealia Banks) to the awful (Daisy Dares You, below).

There is no BBC-wide equivalent to the end of year lists - different BBC radio stations pick their own - so instead we’ve looked at the end of year lists from the Guardian and Pitchfork, since 2010, as two arbiters of relative taste. That gives plenty of time for tipped acts to gestate and make great records.

Of all the albums on those lists, only a handful of artists had appeared on the BBC Sound of... poll. Those included The Weeknd, James Blake and Frank Ocean. But, perhaps surprisingly, all of those artists appeared in the top 10 of a end of year list for a mixtape or EP before they appeared in the supposedly predictive BBC Sound of Poll. That means people were voting for them because they'd already been proven to be critically successful.

There have only been three artists since 2010 to translate nominations in a BBC poll to subsequently appearing in albums of the year lists: Vampire Weekend, Kelela and Savages. However, none of those acts managed to break into the top 5 of the BBC poll.

And here is a short list of new acts that did appear in the albums-of-year lists but have never appeared on the BBC poll: Disclosure, Jessie Ware, Beach House, Grimes, Tame Impala, Kendrick Lamar, Janelle Monae, The xx, Alt-J, Bon Iver, Drake, Katy B, Rustie and These New Puritans.

So let's slice it the other way. You could argue that Pitchfork and The Guardian pick albums for critics and tastemakers - that’s not what the BBC is about, it's about finding the next big thing. So let’s take a look at the top 40 best selling albums of last year. Those include records by Emeli Sande, Arctic Monkeys, Bastille, London Grammar, Rudimental, Jake Bugg, Calvin Harris, Bruno Mars and Ben Howard. NONE of those acts have ever appeared on the BBC sound poll despite all being eligible at some point. Neither has Ed Sheeran or Lana Del Rey who were both in the top five best selling records of 2012.

So what exactly is the BBC Sound of... poll good for? Well it’s had some successes in predicting success but only when success has been staring it in the face with a big hat on its head saying SUCCESS THIS WAY. It’s also a good way for the BBC to spotlight new artists, giving potentially niche-interest propositions a little shove towards celebrity. Mostly though, it’s neither a reflection of commercial success nor critical darlings. It’s just a scrum that the music industry fights desperately to be in each year (I’ve heard more than one story of an act being put on the back burner and eventually dropped simply for failing to make the list). I reckon, statistically, you have a better chance of success if you don't make the list than if you do.

The winner will be announced on Friday 9 January after a countdown of the top five. In the meantime, peep the longlist in full below:

George The Poet
James Bay
Kwabs
Lapsley
Novelist

Rae Morris
Raury
Shamir
Shura
Slaves

SOAK
Stormzy
Sunset Sons
Wolf Alice
Years & Years

More info on BBC Music.

Follow Sam on Twitter: @samwolfson

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Sound of 2015