Hating the Mercury Prize is too easy

By Emma Millward

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It’s something of a journalistic rite of passage for music critics to write a despairing piece about the futility of the Mercury Prize. Whether it’s the Telegraph lambasting it as “irrelevant” or Damon Albarn famously removing Gorillaz from the shortlist because a win would be “like carrying a dead albatross around your neck for eternity”, it’s never been short of controversy. After all, everyone knows that awards ceremonies for the arts are morally bankrupt and artistically unethical. Only a fool would care what a few corporate types think about the music scene. Right?

Except that is all far too easy, an attempt at cool cynicism rather than engaging with the more complex issue at its heart. Any effort to condense a year’s worth of releases down to just the dozen best albums is essentially futile: it’s too subjective, there are always going to be biases towards certain genres and styles, and you’re never going to please everyone. Make it too commercial and you’re condemned for being mainstream and conventional; fill the shortlist with unknowns and you’re a hipster music snob. Sounds like a no-win.

However, for all Damon Albarn’s whining, it is not a no-win for those nominated. Ghostpoet has been both a nominee and a judge for the award, and in an interview with the BBC he was quick to praise its positive effect on artists: “I’ve been a great fan of the Mercury Prize for years. My opinion is very much that it’s a celebration of the records coming out of the UK. If you win, it’s great. If you don’t, the exposure alone – if you work hard off the back of it – can be as good as a win.”  There is a definite financial boost for those on the list, and especially so for the winners. Quite aside from the £20,000 prize, record sales can rise dramatically with a win. For an up-and-coming act, that could make the difference between being able to pursue music full-time and having to juggle it around a day job.

Take this year’s winner. Benjamin Clementine is a singer-songwriter whose music owes a debt to Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley and previous Mercury Prize winner Antony and the Johnsons. His album At Least For Now is a flawed piece but has undeniable moments of beauty. Although he is now with EMI, Clementine left London for Paris with little money and had to busk his way to success. With this win, his music will be opened up to a new audience who may never have heard his name otherwise. It seems mean-spirited to condemn the success of a man who has clearly worked hard for it.

The same can be said for one of the more well-known former winners. PJ Harvey has actually won the award twice but her win with Let England Shake is particularly notable. A concept album about life as a soldier in the First World War, it’s not an easy listen but is an incredibly rich and rewarding experience. After winning the prize, sales of the album rose by over 1000% , bringing it to a more mainstream audience. Should music fans and critics really be despairing about a vehicle that allows fantastic music to gain a wider fanbase?

There does seem to be a case for saying that recipients of the award tend to fade into obscurity afterwards, but I think this is a problem with the whole business, not just this particular award. It’s a fickle industry, one where you can be top of the charts one week and a has-been on I’m a Celebrity the next. You just have to look at Sandi Thom’s recent online breakdown to see that one spell of success is not enough to guarantee a lasting career. Perhaps that is how it should be, though. Artists should be judged on their current output; no one should be given airtime or record deals purely because they used to be good. One of the nice things about awards is that they credit exceptional work and give a platform to artists, but they are not, and nor should they be, a ticket to success if your later releases are of a lower standard. It’s a tough industry and some people will fall by the wayside. Harsh but fair.

If there is a criticism to be made about the Mercury Prize and awards in general, it is that they can only ever showcase a tiny portion of the artists who deserve popular attention. With something as emotional as music, if we disagree with a couple of the nominees it’s easy to condemn the entire award as flawed, but this is the wrong way to approach the problem. Why not promote your preferred choices instead? Share the music you love on Facebook or Twitter or in the comments below or to the guy next to you on the bus. Don’t blather on about hating Benjamin Clementine, a man who has earned success through making the music he wants to make; preach instead about the artists who are inspiring you right now. The music world is big enough for everyone. Rather than criticising someone for their success, perhaps we should all be doing more to bring attention to the other deserving unknowns out there.

On that note, why not share some love below for your favourite albums of 2015.


Cover photo by Ana Viotti