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Mercury’s in Retrograde – Time for a Change?

By on Friday, 6th November 2015 at 11:00 am

In a British music lover’s life, there are very few homemade moments that excite us and promote discussion. There is, of course, the BRITs, but they are awards predominantly based around popularity. The one time of year actual music lovers can truly partake in the awards ceremony ‘buzz’ is late October, when the shortlist for the Mercury Music Prize is announced. It all begins with the announcement of the date on which all will be revealed, after which countless music Web sites and journalists write articles suggesting their favourites they hope will get on the coveted the shortlist. Of course, very rarely is anyone correct – and this is what separates the Mercury Prize from any other awards ceremony – although they choose a majority of acts you’ve heard, with the rest you’re left wondering if you’ve been a social outcast, as they’re names that you can’t even pretend to have heard before.

The Mercury Prize’s pretence is that it gives the award and nominations to acts that have, and excuse the pun, the musical ‘X Factor’. It goes to acts based solely on musical credit, and to an extent you believe them. It’s certainly not a popularity contest. In 1998, Gomez’s ‘Bring It On’ beat The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’; one of which is now considered a classic, and the other is just a debut album. However, you can’t help but feel that the tastemaker panel is just trying to stand out from the crowd by awarding the honour to underdogs rather than favourites, almost the opposite of a popularity contest.

The award can have a great effect on an artist’s career and more often than not, the winner will see a humongous surge in sales, though this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a career shortcut (see Ms. Dynamite, the winner of the 2002 Mercury Prize, who then went on to ‘win’ the one time Naomi Award [think the Razzies, but for music] for Worst Urban Act in 2006). This year’s nominations list features a lot of familiar names with Aphex Twin, Florence and the Machine, Jamie XX and Wolf Alice being major players. This definitely makes the awards more accessible, but one can’t help but feel these are safe choices. Past years have always been a veritable smorgasbord of the unknown and big hitters, but there was always a certain idea behind those chosen. You felt there were enough almost-controversial choices that there was a method to the madness; in contrast, this year just feels bland. Is this really the state of British music currently? It’s certainly not the Britain I’m living in.

For the judges, coming up with the initial shortlist must be no easy feat, having to whittle down from hundreds and hundreds of potential nominees to just 12. Although they definitely do a great job, isn’t the entire basis of trying to judge albums by musical quality completely subjective? How can we be told that these 12 records truly represent the current state of British music, for this specific year, when the actual judges, who all have their own levels of tenure and experience in the music industry, are supposed to chose for us?

Generally, the public shouldn’t be given a vote, because, as we see regularly, they control TV talent shows and the like, and look where that leads to, many a failed career and horror shows. However, there may be a fairer way to control the output of the Mercury Prize: that is, either including a delegate from each area of the industry – the lower and the upper echelons, the bigwigs, nominates their own delegate to go onto the judging panel – or we, as a keener public, vote for the judges. This avoids the wider general populous, the TV voters, creating popular nominations as they won’t be inclined to get involved with something that has no direct impact on them as people, and it allows us to decide who we want to tell us what’s good and feeling safe in the matter. At no point is the public involved in these awards, which might be a good thing, but it certainly gives off the idea we are no longer tastemakers. After all, if we’re the ones being told who’s the creme de la creme of music via a panel of judges, then by this proxy, whose tastemaking is helping the rest of the music world go round? By and large, the general populace are the ones who decide what’s good. We’re the ones that buy the records, we single-handedly created the popular music genre by going out in the thousands and buying singles. So why shouldn’t we get a say in something as significant as this?

The 2015 Mercury Prize Album of the Year will be announced on Friday, the 20th of November, in London.


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