Does It Matter If Metal Never Makes The Mercury?

Or does nobody give a shit…
Mercury Prize shortlist graph by Paul Piggott

Look at the graph above, sent to me by Paul Piggott of La Digit PR, breaking down all of the albums to have been shortlisted for the (Barclaycard) Mercury Prize since 1992, by genre.

Now, read this quote from the Mercury’s own website: “One of the founding principles of the Mercury Prize was that all music be treated equally regardless of genre. This principle is followed at every stage of the entry and judging process.”

Now look back at the graph. One genre has been omitted for inclusion every year. All music, treated equal. Except metal, obviously.

As I noted when suggesting points for Mercury Prize reform last year, the prize’s chair of judges, Simon Frith, has said of metal: “[It is a] niche that a lot of people don’t listen to.” Which is why, of course, Metallica headlined Glastonbury this summer, and why Black Sabbath’s ‘13’ went to number one on release a year ago and won the band its first Grammy in 14 years.

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Black Sabbath, 'God Is Dead?', from '13'

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A lot of people don’t listen to jazz, to rap, to overly earnest indie boys with scratchy beards and morose lyrics, but they’ve all been a part of the Mercury story to date. (Of course, albums have to be entered for the Mercury, and some 250 or so are each year, of which only 12 make the shortlist – but in all this time, is the award saying that not one album was entered that was both metal in execution and excellent enough to make the final dozen?)

Now I’m no card-carrying ambassador for all things metal. I wear black t-shirts mainly because I’m told that they hide a man’s gut rather better than white alternatives, and have relatively long hair on account of being too lazy or broke (depending on the week) to get it sorted out. I’ve been known to write a Kerrang! review or two in my time – but a lot of the bands appearing on said magazine’s cover are totally alien to me. Yet I do see a problem with Britain and Ireland’s premier album award never once acknowledging an enduring strain of music birthed on these isles, and exported successfully since the 1960s.

Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Motörhead, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest: these are all fantastically popular British heavy rock bands, metal bands, that have laid foundations for a wide array of contemporary acts to build new tangents upon. Brilliant commercial results for newer bands like Bring Me The Horizon, Architects and Mallory Knox shows that these apparently alternative sounds remain as appealing as ever.

Today, metal fans are so numerous as to represent significantly more than a niche: 50,000 people attended Sonisphere 2014 to watch the likes of Deftones, Slayer and Mastodon, while many more flocked to Download for Avenged Sevenfold, Aerosmith and Linkin Park, the latter performing an album, ‘Hybrid Theory’, that has sold in excess of 10 million copies in 14 years. Radio 1 might only allocate rock and metal three hours’ airtime on a Sunday night as of September, but Daniel P Carter’s show’s slot comes right after the top 40 countdown: a concession, surely, that this music enjoys some crossover attraction amongst mainstream audiences keen to know what’s number one this week.

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Linkin Park, live at Download 2014 - pretty small crowd, pretty niche, yeah?

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But 22 years of hurt have caused a rift to appear between the Mercury and the metal community. Alexis Petridis wrote, for the Guardian in 2011: “the British mainstream media is institutionally biased against heavy metal. For some reason, it’s populated by people who neither like metal, nor understand it, and who believe that the general public follow suit.”

Looking over the judging panel for the 2013 Mercury, though, I’d say that one member of it at least, Mary Anne Hobbs, has a publicly acknowledged respect for rock – she presented Radio 1’s Rock Show from 1999 to 2005. Emily Eavis booked Metallica for Glastonbury, so maybe she’s got a little metal collection tucked away somewhere. Kate Mossman has covered Maiden, writing: “It makes me happy that these bands exist: powerful little worlds spinning on their own axes, free from fashion, running on evangelism and eccentricity.” 

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like precisely the kind of music that an award like the Mercury should be highlighting – music that doesn’t bow to the trends of the right-on-time here and now, but finds its own space, its own settings, its own path to the heart of the sun. Back to the Mercury’s own mission statements: “The main objectives of the Prize are to provide a snapshot of the year in music, to encourage debate and discussion about music, and to help introduce new albums from a variety of musical genres to a wider audience.”

That final point is the most salient when it comes to the “discussion” about metal and the Mercury: if, indeed, the mainstream media is anti-metal, then an event like the Mercury Prize is surely the greatest possible platform to shake up attitudes and opinions about this very British brand of music. But perhaps it’s too late to mend the damage that’s been done.

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Bring Me The Horizon, 'Shadow Moses', from 'Sempiternal'

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Bring Me The Horizon’s ‘Sempiternal’ should have featured on the 2013 Mercury shortlist. I have spoken to dozens of fellow critics who view the Sheffield metal band’s latest set as not just an important release for its genre, but for domestic music in general – its peaking at three on the UK chart, with sales of over 60,000 and counting, indicative of public support for the band, too. (That it went to number one in Australia, and to 11 on the main Billboard chart in the States, shows that British metal remains a powerful force overseas, too.)

I don’t know whether ‘Sempiternal’ was ever entered for the Mercury, though, and if the answers I get from some prominent members of the rock press are anything to go on, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d just not bothered.

Does it matter if metal never makes the Mercury? Personally, I feel that it needs to feature, and in a way that isn’t tokenistic – as and when the right record comes along. But James McMahon, editor of Kerrang!, tells me that time might never happen. “I think that the rock community has just decided that the Mercury is a load of tosh, and so aren’t bothering to put any entries in. I can think of loads of albums that should be considered, but they won’t because a) rock is such an insular, us versus them scene and b) because the labels and bands know they wouldn’t stand a chance if they were nominated.”

Of course, it’s not just the winning that counts with the Mercury – all shortlisted albums see their profiles raised. Savages’ ‘Silence Yourself’ didn’t win the Prize in 2013 – the award went to James Blake’s ‘Overgrown’ – but the record saw a sales boost of 150% as a result of the increased exposure. Sales of David Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’ went up by 200%. A metal album on the shortlist would benefit, even if it stood no chance of actually winning. Imagine something like (Liverpool band) Conan’s ‘Blood Eagle’ making the cut – it’d be amazing, not to mention entirely deserved.

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Conan, 'Foehammer', from 'Blood Eagle'

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James Sherry wrote extensively for rock and metal publications before switching to PR – he co-founded Division Promotions, which looks after acts like The Gaslight Anthem, MGMT and Black Sabbath. He echoes James’ sentiments: “Who gives a shit? The Mercury is for the bland and the mainstream. Why would metal even want to be a part of it?” I ask Raziq Rauf, editor of Thrash Hits, what he thinks. Could a metal album finally make the Mercury shortlist in 2014? “Hell no.” Succinct, and pretty damning of the Mercury’s alleged intentions, to treat all genres equal and to encourage discovery.

So bravo, the Mercury. Seems you’ve successfully ostracized an entire genre. Which rather flies in the face of your own modus operandi, but never mind. But then, when you’ve got a known album-naysayer like George Ergatoudis as part of the decision-making set-up, in 2013 at least, maybe you deserve to be labeled as “bland”, as “a load of tosh”. (Seriously, he cannot be on the panel in 2014. Please.) You could have made metal matter to many more music fans. But, here we are, looking at a 2014 award where you’ll likely give the top prize to bloody ‘Ghost Stories’ or Ed Sheeran or something completely awful. Dodged a bullet with James Blake – let’s see which way you step next.

The shortlist for 2014’s Mercury Prize is revealed in September, and the winner announced in November. If you can bring yourself to give a shit anymore.

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