How important is the Mercury Prize?



The Barclaycard Mercury Prize comes to the rescue once a year to acknowledge artists who, ‘share a com

By Hayley Fox

In an age where we’re regularly confronted with images of Harry Styles’ dishevelled mop, Gaga’s weight gain and have to endure that gallop-y Gangnam Style dance, it’s no wonder why some get wedged in the pop vacuum. The danger in this is forgetting about the real essence of musicianship and what a well-written album really sounds like.

The Barclaycard Mercury Prize, an annual competition for the UK’s best album, comes to the rescue once a year to acknowledge artists who, ‘share a common sense of adventure, pushing music in fresh and dynamic directions’.

Among this year’s 12 nominees sit Ben Howard, Alt-J, Richard Hawley and Jessie Ware. But the unimpressive media coverage delegated questions just how important is the Mercury Prize?

Clumsy presenters and crazy outfits make the Brit Awards a national talking point every February. But the predictable winner it churns out makes the event less about the music. The beauty of the Mercury Prize is that there’s only one prize. There are no frills. The closest you get to anything other than the music would probably be an ‘indie’ fashion magazine or blog delving into the ins and outs of Lianne La Havas’ dress or The Maccabees’ shirts.

But there’s something missing. The prize, first given in 1992, still fails to attract mass appeal. It may be a an integral part of the music year for the industry and music fans, but it still doesn’t seem to have a concrete place in the majority of the public’s hearts yet. Even though every year one or two more mainstream albums are picked to try and reel in a wider audience. Ms Dynamite-ee and Dizzee may have won before, but we’ll have to see whether Plan B can do it for the chart-lovers at the awards on 1st November.

Counting myself as one of those ‘music fans’, I do see a case for the importance of the Mercury Prize. It gives a big, warm hug to artists whose albums wouldn’t have been recognised in any other way. It also gives the newer artists a chance to be picked up by the media and fed to hungry ears.

James Mainwaring, of nominated band Roller Trio, said: “I think it’s very important, a lot of effort goes into the making of an album, making it flow, hearing the narrative and it marks a period in the artists career. During the download age a lot of people justlisten to singles.

He added: “It’s already helped us reach an audience that would have taken us a lot longer to reach without the prize.”

Fellow nominee, folk singer/songwriter Sam Lee, said he has statistically sold more records since the nomination.

He added: “Unparalleled in British Music, it is a prize that although controversial, honours innovation and talent at its heart and not the glitz, glamour and hype that gets so much bad music so much further than it should.”

Media attention could be stepped up even more. Only music publications really care about the prize, with others dabbling in when the nominations are announced and the winner crowned. As to whether this media attention has an effect on album sales, it may be down to the type of store.

Stephen Godfroy, co-owner of independent Rough Trade Retail, said:

“Given the media glare, you’d think the Mercury Prize would have more sales impact than it actually does. However, many customers are already aware of the acts nominated, and have previously made their purchasing decisions (to buy or not), often several months before this media bash takes place.

“The Mercury’s suffer from an identity crisis, lacking sufficient editorial authority to reinforce the media coverage it receives.

Overall, the Mercury’s are a welcome spotlight on some great music, but as to being much more, the jury is still out.”

Walk into any music chain store and you’ll see a shelf dedicated to Mercury nominees. It entices shoppers to buy one of the hotly tipped records they may have had pitched to them on the radio or read something about on the net. Some may feel the need to give into temptation and buy one of these uber-cool records or else be shunned by their music-loving peers.

Jane Unwin, of Banquet Records, Kingston and co-founder of Gravity DIP Records, said: “In my experience labels and mainstream retailers see this as a bigger thing than specialist retailers or bands do – it’s another marketing tool more than anything else, really.

“We’ll often have been selling lots of something before it’s Mercury nominated and the shortlist tends to make the bigger retailers pick up on things they’d otherwise ignore.”

This year the nominations and the ceremony were pushed back two months to increase the hype surrounding it. The decision was also made for the coverage to move from the BBC to Channel 4 and the hosting venue from Mayfair’s Grosvenor House Hotel to Camden’s The Roundhouse.

The Channel 4 coverage will only be for five minutes on the award night, just enough time for an awkward victory speech. The night after will provide nearly 90 minutes of coverage at 11:30. It’s as if it’s trying to sweep the award under the post-watershed carpet, so those who don’t care don’t need to see it.

It makes more sense for a live music venue to hold the ceremony, opposed to a swanky hotel. Dave Gaydon, Head of Music for the Roundhouse, said: “The Roundhouse is extremely excited to be hosting this year’s awards show. The Roundhouse is a legendary and iconic music venue, so the fit between the Barclaycard Mercury Prize and Roundhouse feels very natural.”

But one thing that could make the Mercury’s a more open competition is if there was some sort of public vote to choose the initial 12 albums. At present 11 industry people judge the award. Leading some to maybe feel it’s a bit biased. But a public vote could tarnish the award all together. Would the hassle of mass voting for one artist and fixing rumours be worth it? Maybe it is fairer to leave this one up to the experts.

Jon Tolley, owner of Banquet Records, said: “Generally, I’m quite against such competitions. I don’t think there should be a best record.  Sure a favourite record, but best obviously implies its better than something else. “

The way the media handles it and the way it’s judged are debatable. But the concept of the Mercury prize is vitally important to recognise that there’s more to music than hair and ego.

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