With the Mercury and Welsh Music prizes both taking place this October, Joseph Ainscough takes a look at the relevance and intentions of music awards ceremonies, and who really benefits from them.
The Mercury Prize – or The Barclaycard Mercury Prize to give it its full title – prides itself on recognising and rewarding the best of British music each year. Focussing on artists that don’t normally make the cut for Fearne Cotton’s Radio One playlist, it presents itself as the sort of cooler, more relevant, younger brother of The Brits. Pulp, Primal Scream, Arctic Monkeys and Dizzee Rascal; all huge names in British music and all previous winners of the grand prize, and at twenty-two years The Mercury Prize is an institution in its own right. However, just as all cool, hip younger brothers eventually start buying pastel jumpers from Matalan, there are questions surrounding the relevance, the necessity and the validity of the awards.
The first issue you could raise with the award is all in the name: The Barclaycard Mercury Prize. If a footballer signs a sponsorship deal with Nike, nobody cares; if the League Cup is suddenly named The Capital One Cup, nobody bats an eye. However, if The xx were suddenly to announce that Pepsi Max sponsored their next album there would be cries of ‘sell out’. The masses would join as one to shun them, making them outcasts forever in the music world for have the audacity to accept vile, grotty corporate money in order to fund their passion. So why does nobody raise an issue about the fact that the awards themselves can’t be talked about officially without being preceded with the word ‘Barclaycard’? There’s something not quite right about an award ceremony – which claims to provide the more independent and cutting edge side of British music – being sponsored by a credit card provided by one of the country’s biggest banks. The two worlds seem to be at odds by their very nature. Obviously events need sponsorship in order to happen, but ask yourself: could you imagine Bowie (one of this year’s nominees) or the Gallagher brothers (nominated in 1996) accepting a £20,000 cheque directly from Barclays bank just to say ‘well done with the album’? The bad taste left in the music-lover’s mouth by these seedy corporate overtones isn’t exactly washed away when you realise that artists themselves have to pay £200 to even be considered for the shortlist. Again, as an award ceremony that prides itself on recognising those artists that dwell off the beaten track, asking artists to pay in order to even be in the running seems to be more exploitive of the independent music industry than it is supportive. Add into the equation the anonymous panel of twelve judges and you have an award ceremony that feels more like a sleazy uncle than a cool younger brother.
As if to only further reinstate their desire to be of detriment to independent acts, The Mercury Prize rules state that all artists must have a ‘digital and physical distribution deal in place’ in order to even be considered for the award. Meaning that truly independent artists, who lack any backing from major labels, or any labels at all, are completely overlooked. Ludicrous terms and conditions such as these, enforced to the letter, have led this year to the long awaited comeback album from My Bloody Valentine, ‘MBV’, to be ignored by the panel, despite achieving critical acclaim.
Unfair omissions aside, maybe the shortlist of nominees for this year’s award can build a strong enough case in favour of The Mercury Prize. However, not even a list containing David Bowie is enough to convince the sceptics about its own necessity. The problem is, in its ongoing attempt to appear relevant and on the ball, the award ceremony comes across just as tired and predictable as every other one. Just as it was unthinkable that anybody but Adele would win the Brit for ‘Best Album’ in 2012, it was just as inevitable that The xx would win The Mercury Prize in 2010. Similarly, as soon as Alt-J were nominated last year they were out and out favourites to win the accolade, and they did. Whilst both The xx and Alt-J are two fantastic bands whose debut albums deserved all the recognition they got, The Mercury Prize continues year in, year out to deliver predictable shortlists, focussing on a very small selection of choice genres and awarding the prize to an artist that any self-respecting bookmaker would have given you short odds on. This year is no different, with artists such as Foals, Disclosure, Jake Bugg, Laura Marling and Rudimental all nominated. Are they good artists? Of course. Do they deserve some acknowledgment? Certainly. Is it a shortlist that reflects and recognises the real cutting edge of an exciting and vast range of British music? Certainly not. Marling herself has been nominated twice before as have fellow nominees Arctic Monkeys (who won the award after their first nomination). The inclusion of Arctic Monkeys on the shortlist is almost as ridiculous as the inclusion of David Bowie – as good as their albums may be, they are both bona fide international artists with masses of adoring fans on every continent; they’re hardly the bright young upstarts who could benefit from the award and that the award itself could benefit from focussing on. The shortlist does recognise some genuinely exciting talent, James Blake, Laura Mvula, and Savages are all creating exciting and interesting music. However, they’ve also all appeared on Later with Jools Holland in the past year. As good as they are, they’re big enough names in themselves to not need the exposure or the album sales boost that performing on the Mercury Awards live show would provide, with all three releasing albums that made the Top 20 this year and Mvula and Blake breaking Top 10. It seems that the longer this award ceremony continues, the more its shortlist selections look like the desperate attempts of a dying institution trying to remain ‘cool’.
So what can The Mercury Prize do to avoid becoming an increasingly irrelevant and even embarrassing relic of the British music scene? A serious question for any institution to face, but for the answer The Mercury Prize wouldn’t go far wrong if they were to examine and perhaps take some cues from any number of emerging, independent, more localised music awards. In recent years lots of cities around Britain have begun celebrating the very best of their local scene and our very own ‘Welsh Music Prize’ is the perfect example of the sort of award ceremony that The Mercury Prize could learn a thing or two from. Created in 2011, the prize was founded by Cardiff native Huw Stephens and is also helped by Swn, who seem to have a hand in just about every independent music event in the city. The advantage of having a more localised and independent award ceremony is often born out of the founders of said award. The ceremony achieves a real cutting edge simply because it is founded and run by people who have a genuine passion for local musicians. Living and breathing the local music scene every day, they know the bands, they know the labels and they know the audience. Due to this greater knowledge of independent music, award ceremonies like The Welsh Music Prize take on a justifiable level of authority. With their local founders and fully published list of all judges and jurors, it’s easy to see who was involved in the process and just as easy to understand why. This adds to the sense of community and genuine celebration of the scene, in comparison to The Mercury Prize’s highly secretive judging panel. Being so localised also means that what we get with The Welsh Music Prize isn’t just a night of the British music industry patting themselves on the back, but some genuine and real support and recognition of the Welsh music scene. It’s almost a boast, a night where some artists might win awards but the real message is: ‘look how incredible Welsh music is.’ This not only benefits the scene itself, but it also provides an opportunity for a number of shortlisted artists – most of whom are signed to small independent labels – to gain some much needed and well deserved publicity and appreciation. These aren’t Arctic Monkeys or David Bowie, who will get national press coverage every time they release anything; these are small bands who, were it not for The Welsh Music Prize, couldn’t possibly hope to be mentioned in BBC articles or on NME pages.
Clearly The Mercury Prize needs to reinvent itself to avoid sliding into relative obscurity. Maybe – by looking at what the smaller, independent ceremonies are doing – it can save itself. Instead of a selection of predictable artists from the year to have a place on their shortlist, the prize should delve into the depths of the independent music scene to find some real gems. Instead of charging artists for the chance to be considered, the award should do everything in its power to support the artists it is involved with. Instead of having a shadowy panel of twelve unknown judges, all its processes should be open for the public to see. We want to know who is judging these artists and why it is they chose them. What about the artists excited and intrigued the judges enough to give it the accolade? In doing this, The Mercury Prize would become not just another night of Lauren Laverne telling us how good David Bowie is, but a sincere and honest celebration of the very best of Britain’s music scene. A music scene worth boasting about deserves an award ceremony equally worth boasting about and The Mercury Prize could be it. It just needs to realise that in order to be the cooler, more relevant younger brother of The Brits, it needs to learn to love music as much as it likes to think it does.