For many young and unsigned musicians across the UK, BBC Introbing has long been a beacon of opportunity. Originally introduced in 2007, since 2009 users have been able to upload their music to the platform’s website, which is sent directly to BBC Radio producers and presenters. For artists working independently or on a tight budget, BBC Introbing is still a free and affordable way to express themselves and plays a key role in the early careers of Little Simz, Blossoms and George Ezra. It is important to note that this gives any upstart a chance to get on a national radio based solely on music. It is also often a great source of discovery for NME, as it allows underground artists to connect directly with a wider audience.
The basis of BBC Introbing is a network of weekly local radio broadcasts. Since January 2013, every local BBC radio station in England and the Channel Islands has been broadcasting a BBC Music Introbing program on Saturday evenings to showcase the wealth of new music being discovered outside of major UK cities. Each of the 32 shows, which are separated from seven additional different network shows in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, reflects a local scene. Currently, the BBC Music Introduction website receives over 5,000 tracks from new artists per week; In 2022 alone, 19,666 new artist accounts were created on the platform and 95,667 unique tracks were uploaded.
However, last week (January 13), BBC local radio presenters took to Twitter to announce that significant changes to BBC Introbing programs were possible. The proposals seen by the presenters suggest that, if approved, 21 of the individual local radio broadcasts of the network in England and the Channel Islands can either merge or completely cease to exist, and the rest of the support for artists can be transferred online.
“At the moment, we can only guess what will happen to our local BBC Introducing shows,” explains BBC Radio London presenter Jess Issatt, who used to support Loyle Carner and Celeste on her weekly show. “We are concerned that artists, listeners and everyone who benefits from introducing BBC Introbing as a new music platform will not understand what has happened until it is too late. The regionalization of shows is just one step towards getting rid of them completely and, consequently, disabling a vital platform for new artists to have their music heard.”
Music fans were alarmed by this news, anticipating potentially disastrous consequences for the British music industry. In response, BBC 6 Music presenter Tom Robinson launched a campaign in which he encouraged listeners to post messages on his blog in support of local BBC presenters in order to draw public attention to the situation. “It would be terrible if these shows were canceled. BBC Introbing makes [new music] accessible to listeners who would not otherwise have heard these artists,” says Jennifer Clark, a BBC Introbing Solent listener, in a comment accurately summarizing the sense of community that these shows inspire.
Simply put, the future of local BBC Introbing shows is in limbo. In a statement provided to NME, a BBC spokesman said: “Our new local radio station schedules will be announced in due course, but they will not compromise the essence of the BBC’s presentation. We are committed to maintaining dedicated support to discover and distribute the work of new talent on each of our 39 local radio stations. Local radio will continue to celebrate local artists and will be an entry point for talent.
“We have to recognize the changing habits of listeners, and our goal is to reach even more people. Every local radio station has a place on BBC Sounds, which has a fixed “Presentation” slot, in which more content is allocated than the radio schedule can ever accommodate. We also regularly present tracks and artists on the breakfast show, and this will continue.”
It is currently unclear how local BBC Introbing shows can be combined. However, even if they become broader regional shows, the number of talents that will successfully hit the airwaves in the future is likely to become smaller. The current infrastructure preserves the autonomy of local radio and facilitates some of the first steps up that musicians had to take by providing contacts, music education and concerts in places where opportunities are few.
The support from the local hosts of the BBC Introbing show does not stop only at radio dramas. From here, artists are redirected to BBC DJs to perform on national radio, and they can also be nominated to perform on major festival stages such as Glastonbury and Reading and Leeds. Presenters and their production teams directly provide artists with continuous broadcast, interviews, concerts and sessions, which allows music to flourish in communities that are otherwise disconnected from the industry.
“When you’re flaunting yourself, getting your work approved by a local BBC Introbing show can be a really important milestone,” says Moa Moa drummer Matt Taylor. In 2019, the Hertford-based band received their first radio play on the BBC show Introducing Beds, Herts & Bucks, but Taylor points to the Manchester-based Porij quartet as “a prime example of how [BBC Introducing] works as an ecosystem.” He describes the sense of pride he felt watching the band make their Glastonbury debut last year after hearing their music on the BBC show Introbing Manchester two years before. “It was so inspiring,” he notes.
Lewis Whiting, guitarist of English Teacher in Leeds, agrees that the constant support they receive from BBC Introbing has been “invaluable,” adding: “This is the main thing that local groups strive for: you can see that from the past, the introduction of broadcasts by the local BBC has brought results and made the career of the groups more tangible. It gave us a future.”
The relationship between the local hosts of the BBC Introbing show and the artists is not just symbiotic, but also strong. Isatt told NME that she was one of the first — and only — people to hear the demo tracks of Mercury Prize winner, vocalist and poet Arlo Parks, who sent his earliest music to BBC Introbing London when she was still in school. Issatt introduced Parks to her manager, and then offered the Hammersmith pupil her first place at the festival on the stage of the BBC performance at Glastonbury. Leeds DJ Emily Pilbeam agrees: “We enjoy the success of [the artists]. It’s not about us [the presenters], we’re just fans who are doing everything possible to take our artists to a new level.”
English teachers enthusiastically describe their relationship with Pilbeam, who has been presenting the BBC Introbing slot in West Yorkshire for three years. “Local DJs representing the BBC maintain a constant relationship with the artists they play. [Emily] Pilbeam has been with us since day one and always went to our concerts and offered us DJ sets,” says vocalist and guitarist Lily Fontaine, who describes how Pilbeam’s tireless support of English Teacher helped the art-punk quartet to debut. London title show in Lexington in December 2021.
Fontaine continues: “If [the BBC] brings together different local shows, which I think we’re planning to do, then someone like Emily won’t be able to pay as much attention to new bands if they’re from a large region like Yorkshire; each individual band will get less attention and, in in turn, it will get fewer opportunities. The current system is democratic. Without this, we would have lost the sense of community associated with working with BBC Introbing.”
Local BBC Introbing shows may also have been victims of their own success. Like many other youth radio programs in the UK and around the world, they have created an audience eager to easily access new music before the advent of Spotify. Now streaming services can directly introduce listeners to new artists using specially selected playlists and mixes. Mission accomplished, right? Well, not really: instead, passionate and knowledgeable radio hosts, those who have built a story, lose listeners in favor of other services. RAJAR’s findings for the third quarter of 2022 show that, for example, on BBC Radio London, the number of listeners has decreased by 31% over the past year — a figure that would certainly affect the radio station’s locally presented show.
Thus, maximizing the use of local BBC Introbing shows has never been more effective and important. “I realized that standing up for what you think is good pays off,” says Issatt. “I am proud of what we do for artists who will not necessarily get the fame of mass success, but, nevertheless, are incredibly talented and unique.”
Pilbeam also believes that the most important aspect of her role is to continue to share the success stories of local artists with her listeners and, in turn, rely on collective know—how so that the next generation of musicians will feel inspired to break stereotypes. Notably, she was part of the first team to listen to Yard Act via the BBC Introduction website in early 2020, two years before they released their debut album, The Overload, which reached number two on the UK albums chart.
“Limiting the BBC’s presentation to regional shows rather than local [shows] will make it much harder for working—class musicians to break through,” says Pilbeam, referring to the need for broader systemic changes in the industry; in November 2022, a study published by the British Sociological Foundation found that only 8% of creatives in the UK originate from low-income segments of the population. “People say the music industry is no longer focused on London, but anyone who lives in the north knows that’s not true,” she continues. “Local BBC Introbing shows offer people across the country opportunities to succeed. The BBC performance is much more than just a radio performance.”
As presenters and listeners continue to work to protect the identity of their local BBC Introducing shows, it becomes clear that they collectively refuse to let the influence of an evolving, engagement-obsessed industry influence their own listening and discovery habits. “Week after week, my team has been preparing a good show, and we are committed to protecting our local scenes,” Pilbeam concludes. “Nothing will ever change that.”