This coming week sees the twentieth instalment of the annual Mercury Prize ceremony. The award, which was originally conceived as an alternative to the BRIT Awards, seeks to reward the best of new British music while also celebrating that which is exciting and innovative.
One thing that can’t be denied is that the Mercury Prize stimulates debate. Some of the choices have appeared out of step with the public mood (1994 saw M People’s Elegant Slumming pip Blur’s Parklife to the crown) and on occasion, the subsequent weight of expectation makes winning the Mercury seem a backwards step career-wise (think Talvin Singh or Klaxons).
It’s easy to knock the Mercury, but what’s rarely mentioned is that it gives all the nominated artists a significant spike in record sales and besides, what other ceremonies do we have to recognise musical achievement outside the mainstream?
Music writer Jude Rogers has been on the judging panel since 2007, and feels a sense of pride when nominated artists begin to enjoy more commercial success. “It’s what keeps me coming back!” she says, “I really hope more people get to hear the King Creosote and Jon Hopkins album this year.” Chair of the judging panel, Simon Frith agrees: “The prize fulfils my DJ/critic fantasy of getting people to listen to music I like in a much more tangible way than writing about records ever did.”
In this age of reality TV shows and public phone-ins, it’s actually refreshing to find an award that still relies solely on expert opinion and – shock, horror – decides its winner via the medium of discussion. Hundreds of artists enter their albums for the Mercury each year, and the judges have the onerous task of whittling the long-list down to just a dozen records. “Listening to every entry isn’t particularly enjoyable,” admits Jude Rogers, “but I always find new artists I’ve never heard of before and there are enough diamonds in the rough to keep me interested.”
Picking a winner from the list of twelve is slightly more of a dark art, it would appear. Upon being asked to describe the process, Jude Rogers replied that, “sadly, we’re told to keep it confidential!” Simon Frith fleshed out the process slightly: “In the course of discussions the list of possible winners is gradually shortened. The whole process is based on argument; eloquence can make a difference.” It appears that it really is as simple as locking some critics in a room and refusing to let them out until they have a unanimous verdict on a winner.
One aspect of the Mercury Prize which is always remarked upon is what has become known as the “tokenistic” nomination. This overly-harsh phrase describes the one jazz or classical album that always seems to be included on the list, but never wins (this year’s contender is Gwilym Simcock’s Good Days At Schloss Elmau). Unsurprisingly, the critics themselves don’t see such nominations as a box-ticking exercise. “There have certainly been genre-specific winners even if they haven’t yet been jazz records,” points out Simon Frith. Jude Rogers goes further, and believes that a leftfield winner isn’t so unlikely: “If it sums up the mood of the year, and is fantastic musically and creatively, of course a jazz or classical album could win.” She goes on to say, “One year, a certain entry that some people would say is from one of the “token” genres got very close to winning indeed.”
Having spoken to two of the judging panel, it seems clear that those involved are understandably keen to reinforce the positive aspects of the Mercury Prize. It seems unfairly maligned and of course, there will be choices that many people disagree with, but that’s all part of the fun. So, whoever wins on 6th September, you can rest assured that it’s a choice that hasn’t been made hastily. It’s a decision that’s been reached by a team of experts with a real love of music and a commitment to championing creativity. In a world of instant gratification and short attention spans, the Mercury Prize is something we should celebrate, whether we agree with the judges’ verdict or not.