Five Points For Mercury Prize Reform

Because we’d rather it was changed than laid to rest…
James Blake

At the time of writing, the winning album of the 2013 Mercury Prize is sitting at 87 in the UK albums chart. That’s 74 places lower than James Blunt’s ‘Moon Landing’, an album with a Metascore of 51, indicating distinctly mixed reviews. It’s 57 places lower than the eponymous debut album from Jake Bugg, another Mercury nominee for 2013, and a record that came out over a year ago.

Which goes to show: four-figure spikes off the back of prestigious award triumphs are all well and good, but when James Blake’s ‘Overgrown’ (Clash review; and that's him pictured) saw a sales increase of over 2,500% on Amazon after its Mercury win on October 30th, its pre-victory commercial performance was so relatively lacklustre – 27,700 sold domestically ahead of the ceremony – that the considerable boost equalled an ascent to only 23.

And the record slipped rapidly from that position: to 42 the next week, and then to today’s 87. Looks like most of the people who really wanted to add the album to their collections did so on its April release, when the British producer’s second LP achieved a campaign high of eight. 

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James Blake, ‘Retrograde’, from ‘Overgrown’

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And yet it was important for the Mercury that its 2013 winner was not a hit with the public. The annual award’s shortlist for this year featured albums with the highest average chart peak – 10 – since the Prize was founded in 1992. With the exception of Jon Hopkins’s ‘Immunity’ (Clash review), every album on the shortlist had, at the time of the shortlist’s announcement in September, sold over 20,000 units worldwide.

The bookies’ favourite going into the ceremony was Laura Mvula’s ‘Sing To The Moon’, a record achieving a peak position of nine domestically but enjoying consistent sales enough (77k sold in the UK ahead of the Mercury ceremony) to have crept into the mainstream equation, albeit some way short of the sphere of ubiquity inhabited by Emeli Sandé – whose debut album ‘Our Version Of Events’ was 2013’s biggest-selling LP at the year’s halfway point, despite coming out in February 2012.

Mvula represented something of a safe bet for the Mercury in 2013 – already fairly well known, with an album that’d performed more than adequately prior to its nomination – and one that’d already begun to make an impression overseas, breaking into the Billboard 200 in the US. Combine ‘Sing To The Moon’ with a good clutch of its fellow shortlisted collections – David Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’, Foals’ ‘Holy Fire’, Laura Marling’s ‘Once I Was An Eagle’, Jake Bugg’s self-titled set, Arctic Monkeys’ ‘AM’ – and there was a distinctly beige hue to the 2013 Mercury contenders. Even Blake was no stranger to the Mercury – his first album was nominated in 2011.

No offence intended to the aforementioned artists and their LPs – but few could sincerely claim that they represented the cream of British and Irish musical creativity. So for Blake to win sent out a message: yes, the Mercury might’ve suffered criticism for its 2013 shortlist, highlighting a selection of records that’d already been widely celebrated and really didn’t need the extra exposure to prolong their respective campaigns, let alone the meagre-to-some £20,000 prize money; but by naming Blake its winner, the unpublicised judging panel was sticking up for the little guy. Who in this instance happened to be six foot five.

But the Mercury’s escape in 2013 was a lucky one. As a dusty institution of the British music industry, and one that in recent years has displayed a distinct reservation in embracing Britain’s evergreen appetite for forward-thinking sounds, its annual arrival is increasingly tolerated more than it’s genuinely anticipated. And such was the widespread critical questioning of the Prize’s relevance in 2013, and the plethora of ‘alternative’ shortlists offered (from DrownedinSound to The Guardian via the BBC and The Quietus), one has to wonder: just how can the Mercury reclaim its birth right as the proper alternative to the entirely commodified BRIT Awards, as the music-world version of the Booker or Turner Prize?

If it’d gone with an easier listen for its 2013 winner, would the music press have washed its hands of a prize lost within its own machinations, caught in a cycle of refreshing only a limited palette of potentials each year, unable to reach out and embrace the dazzling sounds at the margins of established genre parameters? Perhaps. But now the Mercury has a shot at redemption, at being something more than just another industry knees-up mostly aimed at those already in positions of success. It has an opportunity to accept reform. And Clash has some ideas.

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Hookworms, ‘Away / Towards’, from ‘Pearl Mystic’

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Make the Mercury free to enter… and attend.

Sounds simple. So simple that it surely must be an option. The one-price-fits-all model of the Mercury right now does make for a level playing field, of sorts – everyone ways the same £200 (ish) and supplies a number of CDs for the assessment process. But £200 is not worth the same amount to all interested parties.

Leeds band Hookworms saw their ‘Pearl Mystic’ album touted as one of the standout ‘alternatives’ of 2013 – indeed, it won DrownedinSound’s Neptune Prize (see what they did there?). But the band and its UK label Gringo, despite a great deal of acclaim for ‘Pearl Mystic’, did not submit the record for the Mercury. It was less the £200 that put them off – more what came afterwards, if the album made the shortlist.

Tweeted the band’s frontman, MJ: “The nondescript thousands in marketing fees and physical product is even more shameful [than the money to enter].” Then there’s attending the ceremony. If you’re a band member, you go for free, obviously. Well done you, for your splendid music. Your wife? That’s an extra £400. Your brother? Yeah, the same. Haven’t got a massive label or management company behind you to pick up the bill? Oh, um… I guess we won’t be seeing those supportive faces at London’s historic Roundhouse.

When your sponsor is Barclaycard, a company that registered over £1,500,000,000 in pre-tax profit in 2012 (a 25% increase compared to the year before), you’ve got to wonder why they can’t cover the cost of one night out for a bunch of dirty, sweaty, brassic rock musicians. What are they stumping up right now – the prize money alone? Chump change. Lauren Laverne is always pretty keen to thank the Mercury sponsor – are they keeping her sweet for cab rides to and from Western House? No doubt they are providing a substantial wedge – but why not just cover the whole thing? Who’s it going to bother – and who’s it going to benefit?

In Canada, the (free to enter) Polaris Music Prize is supported entirely by sponsors – check them all out. So Godspeed didn’t care for the award… and they made some valid points. But the model works, clearly.

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Ensure that all genres are given equal attention in the shortlisting process.

Assume that the Mercury becomes free to enter. No restrictions imposed by cost. So the smallest act can enter. Bands from the most niche of genres. And what’s a particularly niche genre?

Metal, apparently. Says Mercury chair of judges Simon Frith: “[Metal] is a niche that a lot of people don’t listen to.” Hmm. Bring Me The Horizon’s well-received fourth album, ‘Sempiternal’, was released in April 2013 and sold over 27,500 copies in the US, enough to chart at 11. Compare that to Laura Mvula’s stateside high of 173. Doesn’t seem that niche, Simon. Okay, but that’s in America. The UK? Again, the initial performance statistics favour the rockers of the argument, ‘Sempiternal’ debuting at three domestically against Mvula’s peak of nine.

So let’s call bullshit on the whole metal being a niche too insignificant to come under Mercury scrutiny (assuming it’s entered in the first place, of course). So are the judges too out of touch with metal for an album from the genre to appear in a shortlist? In 2013, Mary Anne Hobbs was one of the judges, and she has quite the metal background – she used to present Radio 1’s Rock Show, before switching focus to more electronics-coloured cacophonies. Tick there, then. Are the judges too old? Well, Frith is in his late-60s, but he doesn’t actually have a telling vote in the prize decision (what pressure he puts on the judges, who can really say). Greg Cochrane, editor of NME.com and a judge in 2013, definitely isn’t that old. Is Hobbs 'too old' at almost 50? Don’t be silly.

What’s important, though, is to guarantee that individuals of recognised expertise appear on the judging panel each year – and also that they’re backed up by others who have a similar idea of who is and isn’t making the right moves in particular genres. If Mary Anne Hobbs is on the panel as the metal expert, does she have someone supporting her opinions, or offering different perspectives on the outstanding metal LPs? Or is she converging with another panellist on avant-electro fare – was it Hobbs who helped to push ‘Overgrown’ onto the shortlist? (Almost certainly: yes.)

When you’ve got a Jazzwise writer calling the shots on what matters in his field, is there another on the panel who can provide a second viewpoint? Maybe not, given 2013’s lack of a jazz nomination – odd, in a year that saw worthy releases from supergroup-styled combo Melt Yourself Down; multinational ECM act Food, featuring British saxophonist Iain Ballamy; and Israel-born British national Gilad Atzmon. Doubly odd, given that in 2012 the decidedly reserved Roller Trio were selected as the jazz entrant – whether you take their inclusion as token or otherwise, their recognition at least displayed some interest in the British jazz scene. TrioVD, however, they were not – their ‘Maze’ LP of 2012 is one of those Mercury-listed greats that never was.

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Make the judging panel public.

As the above makes abundantly clear, spend enough time searching the ‘net and you can find some of the names that make each Mercury Prize what it is. But without full transparency, how can the public – and the wider music industry, for that matter – be certain that there’s absolute fairness in terms of genre recognition, spread of expertise, and demographic (age, sex, race) variety within the panel?

The whole “But the panel would be lobbied,” thing is rubbish. If you’re on the panel for something like the Mercury, then you work in music. If you work covering music – be that on radio, TV, in the printed press or online – then you’re ‘lobbied’ every single day. That’s what PRs do – albeit without there being cold hard cash offered in exchange for coverage (usually). Anyone doing the lobbying would quickly be rumbled, too – and potentially blacklisted from future awards.

If someone on the Mercury panel really believes that their position would be compromised by eager people on the side of a particular album, then they should not be on the panel in the first place. It’s a simple deal: listen to records and pick the best one. Few things are as easy as celebrating brilliant things. So what if fans of a spurned band get angry with a panellist, or two? Hell, critics go through that every day – we’re all findable on Facebook or Twitter, and we all get our share of shit for what we believe. It’s no biggie – to not have relatively thick skin as a critic is to not make it as one, period.

The BBC Sound Of makes its pundits public (here!). So, too, does the aforementioned Polaris Music Prize (look!) – probably the best example out there of a Mercury-style event. Do these people suffer nightmares as a result of constant lobbying? Of course they don’t. What a pathetic excuse that is to not reveal who’s making the Mercury call. Granted, the BRIT Awards don’t reveal who’s on their judging panel – this is all you get – but they’ve over 1,000 people voting. Listing them all would be a right arsehole.

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Make the shortlist longer… you know what we mean.

If the Mercury is supposed to support British and Irish musicians by shining a light on the standout albums of a particular year (period), then wouldn’t it be great if it did more than just publicise a list of 12 might-be winners? Every album on this not-so-dirty dozen enjoys a healthy dose of publicity, and usually a little sales increase, too. So why not go bigger? Why not publish a longlist of, say, 25 albums, and then reduce that list to 10 or 12 a few weeks before the ceremony?

What’s that? There already is a Mercury longlist of 25 albums, which goes around the judging panel before it’s reduced to 12? So says Vice in this piece from the day of the Mercury Prize 2013. Why is this list not published? Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see what was so close to making the final cut? Again, this is something the Polaris does: it names a longlist of 40 (probably too many if we’re honest) a month before the shortlist of 10.

Even those who didn’t win at the 2013 Mercury saw their album sales increase significantly: Bowie by 200%, likewise Savages, and Mvula’s were bumped to the tune of 150%. Stands to reason that a wider longlist – that list of 25 – would greatly benefit the artists who don’t quite make the ultimate shortlist. If not in actual sales, then in directing curious ears to their sounds, which could translate to increased gig attendances, or simply word-of-mouth, peer-to-peer popularity. There’s nothing better than telling your mates about a great new band – and having 25 to play with instead of 12 would increase the frequency of these discussions in pubs around the country come Mercury season.

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My Bloody Valentine, ‘she found now’, from ‘m b v’

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Accept that all distribution methods are valid.

This is the 21st century. Music doesn’t exist as artefacts, and hasn’t for ages now. Labels are not simply divided into majors and indies. A mixtape can be an album – and an album, a mixtape. What even is a mixtape, anyway, by today’s vernacular reckoning? If an artist says that their album is an album, then it’s an album. The Mercury Prize’s intent is to support British and Irish music predominantly through its albums of the year awards/campaign – that’s what it says here. So, if an album’s an album, it’s in. Okay?

So no more moaning from MBV’s Kevin Shields, please

If the judging panel can hear an album – be that a download, or sent to them on cassette tape – then it deserves to be just as valid an entrant as a big commercial release spread across multi-format special editions. It needs to be accessible by the public too, obviously – so it’s a pass on the Joe Lean And The Jing Jang Jong LP. 

Even if an album’s free to download and practically cost pennies to put together, it should be considered as relevant to the Mercury discussion as one that cost many millions to produce and that’s had several more dropped on it in the name of advertising. That’s a discrimination that simply can’t exist in this day and age. We’re so over format wars – albums exist however their makers want them too, and no panel of mostly non-musicians should be the be-all-and-end-all of the argument.

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Why are we still talking about the Mercury? Does anyone outside of this office even care? Tell Clash we’re full of hot air by tweeting us, or commenting below. (We promise to let it lie after this, really. Honestly. Probably.)

Clash’s Pop Issue doesn’t feature much in the way of Mercury Prize-centric content, but it’s bloody ace all the same. Check it

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