How the UK Music Business Responded to Death of Queen Elizabeth II

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LONDON — In the early afternoon of Sept. 8, only hours before the start of the Mercury Prize, one of the U.K.’s most prestigious music awards shows, Buckingham Palace made an alarming announcement: Queen Elizabeth II was under medical supervision at her Scottish Balmoral estate, and doctors were “concerned” for the 96-year-old monarch’s health. 

Within minutes, U.K. labels trade body BPI, which runs the Mercury Prize, called an emergency meeting. Held at London’s Eventim Apollo, the ceremony was scheduled to be broadcast live on BBC television and radio with doors opening at 6 p.m. Booked to perform were 11 of 12 artists shortlisted for the album of the year prize, including Little Simz, Sam Fender, Wet Leg, Joy Crookes and Self Esteem. Harry Styles was the only nominated act not attending due to U.S. touring commitments. 

Organizers decided to proceed as planned, but to closely monitor events with a view to postponing if the Queen’s condition deteriorated. They cancelled a planned red carpet ahead of the ceremony and BBC execs told them the network would record but no longer broadcast the event live, industry insiders tell Billboard

Then, at 6.30 p.m. the dreaded announcement came from the palace: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II had died, triggering a 10-day period of national mourning that culminates with the sovereign’s state funeral on Monday. 

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Hundreds of guests were already in the Eventim Apollo, with thousands more ticket holders starting to arrive. A message was relayed over the venue’s PA system: In light of the sad news and out of respect to the royal family, the event would no longer go ahead. The guests and artists began to solemnly exit the building. A social media appeal by Self Esteem led organizers to donate food being prepared for guests to feed homeless people.  

Discussions are now taking place about rescheduling the Mercury Prize show for later this year. In the week since the Queen’s passing, many other event organizers, record company execs and music company staffers have also quickly scrambled to change plans to react to unprecedented circumstances — the death of the only monarch Britons have known for 70 years.

The Queen’s passing has had the most effect on the U.K. live music scene. Several concerts scheduled to take place before or on the day of the Queen’s funeral are being pulled, despite there being no official guidance from the government. Cancelled events include BBC Radio 2’s annual live festival, which was due to take place in Leeds Sept. 17-18, featuring Robbie Williams, Nile Rodgers & Chic, Tears for Fears, Kaiser Chiefs and George Ezra

Other disrupted events include London’s one-day festival Overflo, scheduled for Sept. 18, which local authorities cancelled because police vehicles and ambulances were no longer available, as they were needed to support the Queen’s funeral. This weekend’s edition of dance music event Boiler Room London, headlined by DJ EZ, has been postponed for the same reason. 

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Nigerian Afrobeats star Rema called off his forthcoming “Rave and Roses” U.K. tour, which was to visit London’s O2 Brixton Academy on Sept. 18, “in respect of the Queen’s passing.” 

The BBC also pulled the final two shows in its “Proms” classical music concert series, planned for Sept. 9 and Sept. 10 at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The cancellation of this Saturday’s “Last Night of the Proms” event, which was due to be broadcast live on BBC TV and radio, was the first time since the Second World War that the final concert has not taken place. 

A concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra taking place the same day the Queen died was called off 30 minutes before it was due to start. A Sept. 19 concert by violinist and conductor Maxim Vengerov at The Royal Albert Hall, which the Queen was a patron of and regularly visited throughout her reign, has been postponed until a later date.  

Labels Delaying Releases Due to Mourning Period

Meanwhile, record labels have been reviewing and revising their marketing plans in light of the U.K. being in a period of national mourning. Sony Music Entertainment and the George Michael estate pushed back its multi-format reissue of the singer’s 1996 album Older, including a deluxe box set, from 16 Sept. to 30 Sept as “a mark of respect” following “the loss of someone who was loved by so many.”

Queen Elizabeth II greets Jessie J and Robbie Williams backstage during the Diamond Jubilee Concert outside Buckingham Palace in London, on June 4, 2012.

Major releases scheduled for Sept. 9 included Robbie Williams’ XXV (Columbia Records), Ozzy Osbourne’s Patient Number 9 (Epic) and John Legend’s LEGEND (Republic), as well as Lewis Capaldi’s comeback single “Forget Me” – the Scottish singer’s first new material in three years. 

Those releases all came out that Friday as planned because they had been uploaded on streaming platforms in advance, with some already live in several countries before the news of the Queen’s death broke. A number of single releases were, however, temporarily held back, including Anne-Marie’s song “Psycho” featuring rapper Aitch, released by Warner Music U.K.

“Given the sad news about Her Majesty the Queen, we made the decision to hold back releases, where possible,” says Linda Walker, SVP, Commercial, U.K. and Europe for Warner Music. “Psycho” was subsequently made available six days later, on Sept. 15.  

For those artists who did release new music in the immediate wake of the Queen’s death, they encountered a near-silent retail and entertainment market with almost all U.K. promotional activities pulled as television and radio schedules moved to rolling news coverage or tributes to the monarch. BBC music radio stations, along with commercial music networks, quickly adjusted playlists, reduced chat between songs and dropped scheduled guests to reflect the sombre national mood.

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Planned appearances by Capaldi on BBC Radio 2’s “The Zoe Ball Breakfast Show” and a scheduled interview with Legend on “Steve Wright in the Afternoon,” also on Radio 2, were among the high-profile guest slots pulled (a BBC spokesperson says they will be rearranged).   

“In light of the situation,” Capaldi tweeted hours after the Queen’s death, “I don’t think it’s the right time to go overboard on the promotion of my new single, but it’s still coming out at midnight wherever you are.” 

Robbie Williams was due to open the 2022 National Television Awards, taking place Sept. 15 at the OVO Arena Wembley and broadcast live in a peak time slot on TV station ITV. The ceremony has been rescheduled for Oct. 13. 

Streaming platforms and the U.K. arms of all three major labels — Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment — paused active marketing over the weekend and will do the same on the day of the state funeral, which has been designated a public holiday in the United Kingdom. 

Sony and Warner closed their London offices on Sept. 9 and will shutter them again on Monday (Universal Music U.K. will also close its London office on the day of the funeral). Label execs are continuing to review their U.K. release schedules for the rest of September to see if further changes need to be made, sources tell Billboard. All three labels have paused their U.K. corporate social media feeds since the Queen died and will not resume posting until Tuesday at the earliest. 

With Monday now a public holiday, music retailers will lose a day’s trading, further impacting first week artist sales. Big releases out in the U.K. on Friday include Suede’s Autofiction and Marcus Mumford’s solo debut (self-titled). Two acoustic shows by Mumford at London’s Serpentine Pavilion on release day have been cancelled owing to the closure of The Royal Parks venue. Suede has rescheduled in-store performances in Liverpool and Manchester on Monday for later in the week.  

For music suppliers and distributors, the short notice of the public holiday is not expected to disrupt retailers or release plans, says Drew Hill, managing director of Proper Music Group, the U.K.’s biggest independent physical music distributor. 

“We’ll be closed Monday, which does mean some operational changes and requires us to squeeze more work into fewer days either side,” says Hill. “But that seems entirely the right thing to do as a mark of respect for Her Majesty.”

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