British indie rock sensations Wet Leg famously sang about having “a pack of warm beer that we can consume” on breakout hit “Chaise Longue”. But the duo – Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers – might be upgrading to chilled champagne after their eponymous debut album went straight in at Number One in the U.K. charts this month.
“Wet Leg” sold an impressive 28,972 copies in its first week, according to the Official Charts Company, becoming the fastest-selling debut album since Olivia Rodrigo’s “Sour.” And Wet Leg manager Martin Hall of Hall or Nothing, tells Variety there is much more to come from the Isle of Wight-based band.
“It’s not just the No. 1, the numbers were so high,” he says. “Just shy of 29,000 is fantastic for a guitar band, and it stayed in the Top 5 the following week. Wet Leg’s first gig was only in July 2020, so to go from that to where we are now is so quick. The band didn’t expect it, they’re bemused by it all really, but they’re enjoying it and riding the wave.”
That wave will now be taking Wet Leg around the world – the Domino-released album also hit No. 1 in Australia and went Top 10 in Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal and Ireland. There will be a continued emphasis on the U.S., where “Wet Leg” debuted at No.14, and where the band have already toured twice.
“If you’re signed to a major label, they’re so U.K.-focused that you don’t normally go to the U.S. until after the album comes out,” Hall says. “But we had an international plan with Domino from day one and wanted to prioritize America. We’ve done pretty well there, considering no one in the U.S. knows what a chaise longue is, or how to pronounce it!”
America is so important that the band chose to play Los Angeles’ This Ain’t No Picnic festival over a potential slot at Reading & Leeds this summer, although they will appear at Glastonbury and enjoy a “big moment” at their local Isle of Wight Festival. The band will play live in North America extensively between July and October, and will also return in December for radio shows, while they will support Harry Styles in Australia in 2023.
“I’m confident they can do really well in America,” says Hall, who also manages the Manic Street Preachers and the Script. “The live business will be good, we just need to be strategic on what we do. The good thing is, they like being in America – they were there for a month on the bus and they loved it.”
The follow-up to “Chaise Longue,” “Wet Dream” will go to radio in the U.S., but Hall says the band has started planning its second album.
“They play a couple of songs in the set that aren’t on the album, so they’re thinking about it already,” he says. “We’ve got plenty of runway ahead of us on this record, but I’m confident in Rhian and Hester’s songwriting going forward. They’re not going to feel the pressure, that’s not what they’re about.”
+ Martin Hall believes Wet Leg’s success is further proof of an alternative revival, and that idea is backed up by new figures from U.K. labels body the British Phonographic Industry (BPI).
The stats, found in the trade body’s “All About the Music” yearbook, show that independent labels’ share of the U.K. music market grew for the fourth consecutive year in 2021, up from 25.9% to 26.9%, and almost five percentage points higher than in 2017. The indies’ performance in actual sales was even more impressive, with a 34.2% market share, and a huge 39.5% of all vinyl album purchases.
The trend has continued into 2022. The week that Wet Leg hit No. 1 saw a rare all-indie Top Three, with Father John Misty’s “Chloe and the Next 20th Century” (Bella Union) and Jack White’s “Fear of the Dawn” (Third Man) making up the other two slots, while the indies’ market share for the year so far stands at 28.9%.
“The indies are doing really well,” says BPI director of insight Leon Neville. “The growth is coming from a mix of old and new releases, while the album sales share is driven partly through the growth in vinyl, which is in its 14th year of continuous growth. That’s really helped the indies sector, because they do particularly well on vinyl, while rock music is a genre that does very well indeed on the format.”
Curiously, none of the larger indie labels increased their market share significantly in 2021, suggesting much of the growth is coming from self-released artists. And, despite the rush of new-release No. 1 records, the biggest indie album of 2021 was actually Arctic Monkeys “AM”, released in 2013. The band’s 2006 debut, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not”, also made the Top 10, as did two old Adele albums (the superstar was on indie XL in the U.K. until last year’s “30” album).
Neville, however, insists that the indie sector is still breaking new artists.
“The Top 10 is skewed towards catalog but it’s a healthier mix further down,” he says. “New artists do come through – we’ll have our sixth indie No.1 album of the year with Fontaines D.C. this week. The indie sector is still finding artists that are unique and stand out.”
And with last year’s physical sales dominated by major label releases from Ed Sheeran, Adele and ABBA, Neville expects the indies to do even better this year.
“Without them in the marketplace, the independents’ share will probably grow further,” he says. “If the upwards trend for vinyl continues and the supply chain issues are fixed, the U.K. is going to be a very good place to be if you’re a vinyl-releasing indie artist.”
+ There’s also a new U.K.-based independent music company looking to make some waves. Bella Figura Music’s CEO and founder is highly respected exec Alexi Cory-Smith, who enjoyed a hugely successful stint running BMG U.K. before leaving in 2017.
Cory-Smith recently declared the company “open for business” on social media, setting the U.K. industry abuzz with speculation. And, while no official details have been released, Variety understands Bella Figura plans to employ cutting edge technology to manage publishing and master rights for the digital age.
Bella Figura is funded by private equity company Freshstream Capital, with Neelesh Prabhu, who formerly ran BMG’s global investments department, installed as chief investment officer.
That gives the company access to hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of capital for investments and acquisitions, although it seems unlikely to target the very top end of artist deals. Variety understands Bella Figura has already done one deal with a successful U.S. songwriter, with more set to close by the end of June and ambitions to become the next big independent music company. Watch this space…
+ The dramatic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the U.K. live scene is laid bare by the latest figures from performance rights collection society PRS for Music, which represents songwriters, composers and music publishers.
Revenues from live performances fell 29.2% in 2021 to just £8 million ($10.5m) – that’s a mere 14% of 2019’s £54m ($71m) figure. The number of setlists registered with the society fell by 84% year-on-year.
Thankfully, there were signs of recovery elsewhere in the figures. Overall revenues rose 22.4% on 2020 to £777.1m ($1.02bn), although they were still 2.4% below 2019 levels. There was a significant bounceback in public performance revenues as businesses reopened, and royalties from online surged 45.6% year-on-year. But CEO Andrea Czapary Martin does not expect a full recovery until at least 2023.
+ Meanwhile, the annual figures from PPL, the neighboring rights collection society that represents labels and performers, will not be released until next month, but CEO Peter Leathem similarly expects not to reach 2019 levels of revenues until 2023, despite recovering U.K. royalties.
But he still has plenty to celebrate, with PPL hosting a party at BAFTA this week to mark his 10 years in the top job and PPL chair John Smith’s OBE award from the Queen.
There was a huge music industry turnout at the bash, and no wonder. Since 2012 and pre-pandemic, Leathem has overseen a dramatic increase in PPL revenues, which rose from £153.5 million ($201.8m) in 2011 to £271.8m ($357.4m) in 2019. The number of performers being paid annually has also risen sharply, from around 30,000 to over 130,000.
“There’s been a massive transformation in our ability to link performers to recordings and get them paid,” Leathem tells Variety.
Leathem rates his biggest achievement, however, as establishing the PPL PRS public performance licensing joint venture with PRS for Music in 2018. The two collection societies have often been at odds with each other during their long histories, but the JV helped public performance revenues for both hit record levels in 2019 before COVID kicked in.
“There had been attempts to work together in the past that always failed,” says Leathem. “Once you have two incumbent organisations doing something, trying to get them to give that up and come together is really hard.
“PRS was 36 hours away from signing with a different product and doing their own build, which would have put us back years,” he adds. “But I managed to persuade [PRS’ then-CEO] Robert Ashcroft not to do that. It was always about the next 80 years of licensing rather than the next couple of years, because music is more important than ever for businesses.”
Leathem plays down any speculation about a potential merger between the collection societies. And once the pandemic effect subsides, he says PPL revenues will expand even further, with potential to increase some tariff valuations at home and expand collections internationally.
“Only one third of the countries in the world have neighboring rights,” he says. “Two thirds don’t, including China and the U.S., while Japan only has broadcast rights, not public performance. If we could get the broadcast right in America, that would absolutely transform collections.”
PPL entered the international neighboring rights market in 2006, but now faces huge competition, including from the likes of now-Sony-owned Kobalt Neighboring Rights, BMG and Downtown. But Leathem maintains no one can rival PPL’s reach and range.
“We are the mass market provider,” he says. “No one else is acting for 40,000 session players internationally. The competition is around a much smaller part of the market, but we have continued to attract more and more performers. We’ve got a very good, compelling offering, so we don’t really mind what competition there is, because we know we’re still going to do well in that market.”
And, as he begins his second decade at the helm, Leathem promises the industry that there’s more to come.
“I sit here today with the same ambition as I had 10 years ago,” he declares. “Because I can see there are still so many things that we can deliver.”