The Mercury Music Prize, held annually since 1992, is increasingly criticised as being irrelevant, elitist and unnecessary in the file-sharing age. True, some of the nominees appear to be almost deliberately obscure. for instance, there’s always one jazz at least one folk nominee. However, if the nominations merely reflected popularity, it would simply turn into a small version of the BRIT awards, and nobody needs or wants that. Like that other unfairly derided music institution Later…, the Mercury Prize flags up music of which many casual music fans would be otherwise unaware. It is proven to give a sales boost to the winners, and often to nominees particularly the jazz artists. Though its decision-making process is opaque and often controversial, for the most part its aim is to highlight music that might otherwise get forgotten, and that alone is enough to justify its existence.
Having been a big fan and advocate of the benefits of the Mercurys for years, I have detected three ‘categories’ of Mercury Music Prize decisions: the ‘couldn’t be anyone else that year’ (Suede, Franz Ferdinand, Klaxons, Arctic Monkeys); the ‘unexpected yet deserved’ (Elbow, The xx, Dizzee Rascal, PJ Harvey); and ‘plain nonsensical that doesn’t satisfy anyone’ (Speech DeBelle, Ms Dynamite, M People). Whoever happens to win may well have been at the mercy of what particular mood the panel of judges were in that year. Then again, the selection is never going to satisfy everyone.
With regard to the future, the Mercury Prize may have to evolve or die. The current format, where the winner is announced on TV in a short 20 minute programme with the actual performances aired the following evening, is unsatisfactory for potential casual viewers. Those responsible might consider showing the entire thing live, in order to build excitement and stimulate debate among TV viewers through the night before the winner is announced. More categories might be considered, for instance a ‘Best Overseas Album’, though it would probably detract from the Prize’s prestige.
The eventual winner was the bookies’ favourites Alt-J, a band who formed at Leeds University back in 2007 (hurrah!). Their performance on the night brought the studio recording of ‘Tesselate’ to life in a curiously affecting manner despite its intricacy. Like Radiohead and other pioneering artists of the last twenty years, their power lies in making their point subtly. Their winning album An Awesome Wave is a rewarding listen, giving the listener a different experience each time. Scooping the prize should have a positive effect on their sales, in the same way that The xx became a much more talked about name amongst the general public following their victory. As for the Prize itself, the quality of the evening’s performances proved that it is still a respected and relevant institution but could stand to boost its popularity by becoming more accessible to the general public.
Words: Ed Biggs