It’s that time of year again; a rehashed 200th season of X Factor, the best/worst Halloween dress ups imaginable, bonfires and the Mercury Prize. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t excited by it all, but who doesn’t love a list they can wag their chin at and boast “I knew they were gonna win”. It’s not till that album that you made your audio gospel for the year doesn’t win that you quickly fall out of love with the prospect and see it for what it really is: the equivalent of trying to ram the block of a child’s shape-sorter through the wrong hole, hoping it comes out the other side as a shining, perfectly packaged star.
Manchester-based band Everything Everything were tipped to win with their effort Get to Heaven, right up until the shortlist announcement twelve hours later, at which point they were shunted from the list entirely (the panellists opting for the howling dream-pop of ex-Supergrass frontman, Gaz Coombes). As always, the panel retain the power, capacity and tendency to surprise, while a whole year of musical talent is shaped and shepherded through a mere 12 voices who are handed the say-so of what’s ‘good’ on behalf of the entire nation. The decision process is completely disconnected from your average listener – the panel might as well be sat around a fire nursing their sobriety with a swig of sherry, throwing darts at a collection of nominee pin ups, or rolling dice to crown another winner/victim.
Perhaps what shouts the loudest over all the chatter in this situation though is the sky-rocket of album sales that even so much as a nomination will bring. Alternative rock band Elbow saw a 700% jump in sales of their prize-winning Seldom Seen Kid, commenting it was “quite literally the best thing that has ever happened to us”. 2014 surprise act Young Fathers saw a 4000% boost. And this year’s outsiders Eska and C Duncan have already seen streaming figures increase by 2965% and 1040% respectively. Marketing ploy or not, the Mercury Prize has the influence to propel an album straight into top 10 territory. That said, however, I can’t really see hordes of people rushing out to buy Roisin Murphy’s idiosyncratic art-pop offerings.
Winners, meanwhile, such as 2009’s promising Speech Debelle, are weighted with a burdening expectation to deliver with a star-studded second release. The pressure showed and the eventual follow up (2012’s Freedom of Speech) didn’t receive much commercial attention. Gorillaz member Damon Albarn even pulled his group out of the running in 2001, saying it was “sorta like carrying a dead albatross round your neck for eternity”. While such a backlash is unlikely, artists might just end up paying the entrance fee to their own musical grave-digging, and it could smudge the credibility of young artists (such as 18 year old Soak) before they ever even gained it.
However, of the 12 nominees, nine of them come from independent record labels, reflecting a move away from the ‘big four’ of majors towards a more home-grown, DIY approach. This is indicative of the shifting culture where artists count on giving their music directly to their fans through their own means of social networking.
In the modern landscape of increasingly democratic consumption practices, people have the power. Why not allow the Mercury Prize to evolve with this and throw it open to a public vote? Only then might the award have some democratic promise and accuracy to it; only then might it become a legitimate indication of the year’s most popular music. Then might it actually carry some sort of real meaning.
Jordan Low @