The Mercury Prize: Stick or twist?

Imperfect and confused, the Mercury Prize is in need of a clearer mission aim. But it still serves an important purpose, writes Piers Barber.

Mercury Music Prize - London

Speak for England: Speech Debelle picks up her surprise Mercury Prize in 2009.

This week, the shortlist of nominations for the 2013 Mercury Prize was announced, bringing with it the latest series of discussions over the future of an award which has steadily fallen in prestige since its promising conception over twenty years ago.

The prize, established in 1992, was created as an alternative to the BPI Awards (later the Brits), which were considered to have lost touch with the progressive trends of British music. The new award boasted a satisfyingly streamlined ambition: it would celebrate just one category, the best British album of the year, which would be chosen by a panel of experts from a shortlist acknowledging the year’s finest achievements in all genres, including folk, jazz and classical. Artistically commendable records that may have been slept on throughout the year would hence receive recognition, a potential increase in sales and – if they won – a nifty £20,000 prize.

In theory it’s a commendably sound system, and occasionally the panel have proved spot on with their selections. Their first winner, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, remains the band’s pinnacle and one of rock’n’roll’s finest achievements, whilst Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner, the 2003 winner, exists as arguably the most thrillingly complete encapsulation of grime’s breakthrough during the 2000s. PJ Harvey, meanwhile, is the only artist to have won the award twice and constitutes the ideal example of what the award professes to celebrate: restlessly adventurous musicians who rarely sacrifice their creativity in search of commercial success.

Yet the Mercury Prize is far from a perfect system, with the award’s expert panel often failing to identity some of the most essential landmarks in the recent history of British music. In 2002, for example, Ms. Dynamite’s A Little Deeper trumped The Streets’ Original Pirate Material, Mike Skinner’s chip-shop and Kronenbourg garage-opera that has influenced a multitude of genres since its release. Elsewhere, Burial’s seminal dubstep breakthrough Untrue lost out to Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid in 2008, whilst Radiohead, undoubtedly one of British music’s most eclectic and ambitious acts, have also failed to ever win, with Roni Size’s jazzy drum’n’bass offering New Forms beating OK Computer to the gong in 1997.

The award has steadily lost prestige throughout the second half of its existence. Amongst the main criticisms levelled against it have been that shortlist choices have become overly dominated by top-10 records and that judges have neglected the award’s original aim to champion smaller artists attempting to break new ground. No classical records have been nominated since 2002, whilst this year’s list contains no albums that would typically come filed under folk or jazz. Few records representing Britain’s prosperous metal scene have ever made the cut.

Essentially, the troubled award is experiencing something of an identity crisis. Some key questions need answering

The causes of such complaints can largely be traced to the award’s troublesome rules and structure. The entrance system, for example, requires each artist to pay £200 and provide the judging panel with copies of their record before it can be considered for inclusion, causing obvious dilemmas for records released on smaller labels which often lack the funds required for a speculative entrance into such a highly competitive field. Complaints have also stemmed from the often undisclosed identity of the judging panel, and the fact the consensus that must be reached amongst a range of judges with different interests often makes the inclusion of safe and relatively inoffensive records largely inevitable.

The result of such issues is criticism and confusion, and a series of muddled commentaries written by critics clearly perplexed by what exactly they want from the award. Many have criticised the panel for failing to take enough risks, yet the decision to award the 2009 prize to Speech Debelle’s Speech Therapy was met with significant ridicule. They demand the recognition of progressive, forward-thinking records, yet in 2007 criticised the judges for neglecting Amy Winehouse’s retro-indebted Back To Black in favour of Klaxon’s Myths Of The Near Future, a key moment in the brief rise of new rave.

Essentially, the troubled award is experiencing something of an identity crisis. Some key questions need answering: what are the backgrounds, professions and demographics of the judging panel? In what ways are they qualified to assess the current state of British music? And what are the guidelines they use to make their decisions? Essentially, what exactly is the award meant to stand for?

Unfortunately, this year’s shortlist has provided few answers to these questions. Despite Chair of Judges Simon Frith’s view that the list represents a “wonderful range of musical voices…all with something intriguing to say”, it is a largely predictable selection containing too many uninspiring choices. Jake Bugg’s self-titled debut, for example, is an unadventurous representation of British song-writing, whilst Rudimental’s bland and blunt brand of drum’n’bass-pop neglects an abundance of intelligent and progressive British dance music currently on rotation in the nation’s clubs. Even decent albums such as Foals’ Holy Fire and Laura Marling’s Once I Was An Eagle can hardly be identified as ground breaking. Only Immunity, Jon Hopkin’s gorgeous voyage through the rich textures of electronica, can be argued to deserve the further exposure brought by nomination.

Yet there is no need to put the award out its misery just yet. Ultimately, the nominations still prompt discussion, which can only ever be a positive thing. Each year, the shortlist’s announcement leads internet forums, blogs and magazines to make their case for their favourite albums, encouraging diversity and often aiding consumers to make new discoveries. It even gives know-it-all hipster magazines a good excuse to sneer at all the popular musicians. In a way, everybody wins.

Most importantly, the Mercury Prize recognises the achievement of the album as a collective entity in a world when limited radio selections, iTunes singles purchases, and Spotify create-your-own playlists are undermining the concept as an art form in its own right. Whilst the award needs to be clearer in its mission aim, it is for this reason, if nothing else, that the Mercury Prize deserves to be persisted with.

See also: Who should take gold in the Mercury?Album Review: Jon Hopkins – Immunity & Album Review: Foals – Holy Fire

Follow Piers on Twitter @piersbarber18

3 responses to “The Mercury Prize: Stick or twist?

  1. Pingback: Who should take gold in the Mercury? | Music Factory Number 1·

  2. Pingback: Album Review: Jon Hopkins – Immunity | Music Factory Number 1·

  3. Pingback: James Blake wins the 2013 Mercury Prize | Music Factory Number One·

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