Perhaps you have dutifully trawled through each of the 12 albums that make up the 26th Mercury Music Prize shortlist, thinking as you go, “I’ve just got used to streaming, so why should I back-pedal into old track-by-track ways?” Yet this is how the winner gets picked from the 12 albums by the 12 – such is Mercury’s devotion to the duodecimal – judges.
These judges are asked to argue about each album as some sort of fully-rounded artistic statement. Finally, the judges must unanimously choose one above the others. Whichever artist wins, gains a statuette, £25,000 in cash and the promise (but only a promise) of increased sales and a ride up the charts the following week. But it is formally the album format that wins – as the prize has ended up as a defender of old-school music production and consumption.
The Mercury Prize was set up in 1992 as an alternative to the BRIT Awards by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI). It made sense that the record industry should want to promote its independent labels at a time when it had been profitably reviving old albums in the new CD format.
“Mercury” itself was a telephone company that lost its name in 1997 when it was amalgamated with its parent company, Cable & Wireless Communications. It was the show’s first sponsor. Since then, there have been six prize sponsors, the current being Hyundai. None of the sponsors have been able to replace the “Mercury” name with their own, however. It has become a brand like the Turner Prize for art, with which it shares a certain reputation for “making and breaking” artists.
Meanwhile, the BPI’s thumbprint on Mercury can be found in the rule that a solo artist or 50% of a band must be British. Mercury has also largely promoted those musicians either side of the mainstream, including artists like PJ Harvey (twice a winner) and alt-J (nominated again this year). Controversially, this year saw the nomination of the very mainstream Ed Sheeran.
Mercury’s organisers are spoilt for choice because over 200 albums are submitted annually by record companies. Over the first 10 years, one modern classical album – nearly always one – was also included. A classical expert was appointed to the jury in the hope of persuading the others of the album’s merit. But a classical artist has never won and that item was soon exposed as mere tokenism.
Artists at their best
Since then, it has been jazz that has embraced the “token” role (this year, Laura Jurd’s Dinosaur). The organisers insist that the jury looks beyond genres and welcomes acts from across musical styles. But in 2013 it was pointed out that a heavy metal album has never been chosen for the prize. As a defence, it was ingeniously claimed by Mercury chair of judges, Simon Frith, that metal is not a genre but a “niche”.
There is one thing that takes place at the ceremony that I believe has an impact on the jury’s final choice but has little to do with the album. Each of the 12 artists are asked to give a live performance, perhaps to justify the television coverage. The show takes place during the post-summer festival circuit, so the artists are often at their best.
It was at the 2007 event that Amy Winehouse made her first appearance after illness and redeemed herself in the eyes of the industry with a rendition of Love is A Losing Game. It did not end up winning her the prize but the fact that a live performance takes place on the night of the vote – when the judging panel is trying to come its final decision – surely affects the view of the jury members and could sway them in a new direction. Furthermore, the artists do not, of course, perform the full album on which they are being judged.
If the Mercury Prize is to last it will have to hope that the music buying public will carry on consuming albums which provide “artistic statements” or it may have to consider changing its vetting and voting policy to a completely new set of terms that reflect the practice of streaming. It may have its detractors but the project does bring the work of 12 artists to the public’s attention who might otherwise struggle to be heard. After all, Mercury was the god of communication and business.