The Mercury PrizeJuly 22, 2009 at 10:07 am | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | 10 Comments
There’s a special time, which only comes once a year, where music fans, bloggers & journalists all get to gather in their pubs, clubs or online communities and stage their own re-enactment of this toe-curlingly true scene from High Fidelity:
I am, of course, talking about the announcement of the nominees for this year’s Mercury Music Prize, an award which is as important to the British music scene as it is maligned by a large number of the folks who follows it. Every year you can witness the same ritual of fans quibbling with the choice of nominees, complaining that their favourite record isn’t in the mix, whinging about the perceived ‘tokenism’ of always including a folk or jazz act, or tossing around charges of ‘selling out’ to ‘the man’. The sad truth is, many of us perversely enjoy this week-long round of fault-finding, and it at least demonstrates the depth of passion people still have for individual bands & records even in an age where the monetary value of music has decreased but its availability has exploded.
But the reason the prize is criticised isn’t just driven by pedantry, fandom & snobbery (though they all abound at this time of year), and I think there are valid questions to be made about whether the prize should really be sustained in its current form.
The Mercury Prize is still the most prestigious and high-profile award for independent or alternative music, but it’s seeking to represent a field which has grown dauntingly large. The folks complaining about Glasvegas or Kasabian being on the list aren’t doing so soley because they think those acts are a bit rubbish, but because they can think of two, four or ten acts who would all be more deserving of a nomination. Indeed, there are a great number of artists who’d have a right to feel aggrieved at not being on the shortlist: The Super Furry Animals‘ 9th record was a typically creative return; Camera Obscura produced a lovely album of doomed-love pop songs; James Blackshaw underscored how he’s one of the most talented composers in the country; there were great folk albums by Emmy the Great, Caroline Weeks & Blue Roses, some filthy punk from Future of the Left and the best Manic Street Preachers LP in over a decade. Even now, someone might come along and chide me for missing someone out, and they’d be right. The point is that the size of the shortlist belies the extent of the quality & creativity in the British music scene, and as such isn’t doing enough to either represent or promote it.
They don’t claim to be representative, of course – merely to pick the best albums of the year – but that too is part of the problem. The insistence on diversity of genre on the Mercury judge’s part is admirable, but has the consequence of limiting the public’s knowledge of those genres to what they stick on the list every year. I’m not even sure Lisa Hannigan’s record is even the best folk album of the year, let alone an album of the year, but it’s the only folk album on the shortlist. Likewise, most people will never know if there’s any British jazz/soul/rap which is as good or better than Speech Debelle‘s delightful debut, because by including only one example from that genre, you’re not encouraging further exploration or curiosity.
If it really wants to represent the breadth & diversity of British alternative/independent music, the custodians of Mercury Prize would do well to quit fetishising the one award it hands out and become a lot bigger. By all means offer a prize for best album of the year, but why limit it to that? Why not also have a Mercury Prize for different genres; for folk, jazz, rap, modern classical & maudlin whiteboy indie? Given the extent to which the Mercury Prize is trusted as an endorsement of an album’s quality, it surely couldn’t hurt to spread its endorsements further, for by doing so, you might well succeed in hooking the public up to even more sounds they otherwise would not have heard. Maybe then we’ll see a little less sniping over who is/isn’t on the list, and a little more celebrating about the fantastic stuff we produce.