The Failure of the Mercury Prize Shortlist

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A lot of music awards can be accused of giving out trophies based on the popularity of the artist, rather than on any kind of merit carried by the work of said artist. It’s a common complaint of hipsters, yer da, music aficionados and, of course, the hardest group of all to satisfy, music journalists. This gripe has been around for generations and shows no sign of going away. There is, however, one prize that you can never, ever say has been given out based on sales. This hallowed crown of indie royalty, worn only by a select few, is the Mercury Music Prize.

Now, this article, as you may have noticed, isn’t taking too favourable a view of the Mercury Prize shortlist this year. To understand this writer’s reasons for this, we’re gonna need to delve into a little music history, albeit fairly recent history. The Mercury Prize was established in 1992, to provide a musical equivalent to the Booker Prize for Literature and the Turner Prize for Art, or so their website claims. In the establishing year, the prize was won by Scottish indie group Primal Scream with Screamadelica, which managed to mix considerable critical acclaim with excellent sales. The shortlist included The Jesus and Mary Chain, Barry Adamson, U2 and Saint Etienne, so looking back, Screamadelica was the obvious choice to win it. The following year, Suede’s debut won, again being the obvious choice with only PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me offering any contest.

Then, in 1994, the Mercury Prize turned heads. In a bumper year for music, Blur’s Parklife was nominated, as were albums by Pulp, The Prodigy, Primal Scream and Paul Weller. Which of these 90’s classics won? Elegant Slumming by M People. What? 1995 – the favourite spots go to Oasis, Elastica, PJ Harvey and Supergrass. Who wins? Portishead with Dummy. In 1996 Pulp win, beating Oasis’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?. The most notorious shocks have come in 1997, where Roni Size/Reprazent (me neither) beat Radiohead’s OK Computer; 1999, when Talvin Singh’s album of traditional Indian drum music edged out the Manic Street Preachers; 2006, where then-newcomers Arctic Monkeys triumphed, and 2015, when Wolf Alice, Florence and the Machine, Jamie XX and Slaves were beaten by relative unknown Benjamin Clementine. My point is, the Mercury prize has always included a diverse range of musicians and genres from all over Britain and hasn’t been afraid to shock the mainstream. So why is this year such a problem?

Ironically, the shortlist does a pretty good job in racial diversity, with 4 out of the 12 acts nominated being black artists – that’s 1/3. Another 4 are women, or bands featuring women. So gender diversity isn’t the problem here either. The problem, for me, is that every single artist on the list is English – there’s not a single Scottish, Irish or Welsh artist on the shortlist this year. That’s only happened on 3 previous occasions – last year, 2016, 2012, and 1993. The issue is, this year hasn’t been a bad year at all for non-English artists – it’s actually, in hindsight, been very good indeed. In Scotland, Honeyblood and Baby Strange both released excellent albums that sold fairly well and gathered critical acclaim, but have been ignored. Other Scottish bands such as Meuersault, Mogwai, C Duncan and Sacred Paws have also been ignored. It’s not like Scotland isn’t producing great music – it’s just being ignored for some reason. Although this may seem innocuous, it actually harms Scottish music as a whole. As someone who has been in a band, Scottish bands all try extremely hard to get recognised as serious artists by English or England-based AR men. As in the infamous case of Gavin Bain and Billy Boyd, or “Silibil and Brains”, Scots aren’t taken seriously by a lot of London music industry types, and struggle to get attention. If Shogun was from London, he’d have been signed by a label a long time ago. Baby Strange recently attacked the British music industry, most of whom came up from London to Glasgow and tried to patronise them. I can’t speak for Wales or Ireland, but I suspect, at least for the Welsh, their situation is much the same. The overlooking of non-English artists harms musical development up here in Scotland. When artists aren’t recognised properly for creating great art, it discourages others from following in their footsteps. What really bites is that great albums such as Honeyblood’s Babes Never Die aren’t getting noticed, when mediocrity like Ed Sheeran gets on the shortlist, and Alt-J’s weakest album gets a spot as well.

Don’t, however, think this is a Scottish or Welsh problem. England could also be impacted by the Mercury shortlist. The significant lack of area diversity is actually reflected in England, too. 9 artists, that’s 3/4 of the shortlist, are from or based in London. Only Blossoms of Stockport, Glass Animals of Oxford and Alt-J of Leeds break the mould. It’s ridiculous how many acts from flourishing music scenes in Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester, and Birmingham have been completely ignored by the Mercury shortlist this year. And for what? What’s this amazing talent keeping bands like VANT, Honeyblood, Baby Strange, and many others out of the 12? Ed Sheeran and Alt-J. Sheeran is a token pop entry, a candidate for the most unbearable, if not the worst artist in Britain today. Alt-J were at their best 5 years ago, and ‘Relaxer’ was a bit of a let down for me. 4 artists are grime or hip-hop. How does this reflect the emotions of a kid in Sheffield or Northampton or Glasgow? How can they possibly relate to a single artist on this shortlist when they’re completely unrepresented? Again, this harms local music scenes. By excluding bands who’ve had great years from regional areas, music scenes in that area inevitably feel disheartened and ignored, and thus less bands spring up.

The point of the Mercury is to celebrate musical talent that wouldn’t get a look-in elsewhere because it’s not mainstream or popular. Sadly, it looks like this year will change that, and the Mercury will be a pseudo-Brit award, given out based on how loved the artist is by AR men and music industry talking heads in London rather than on any kind of artistic merit. What else can you say about an award that seriously considers Ed Sheeran as an artist in 2017? To conclude definitively, the Mercury shortlist this year is awful: it ignores artists outside London, and fails to represent accurately what many people relate to in music – and as a consequence of this, I’d go so far as to call it damaging.

Words by Gabriel Rutherford 

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