Why the Mercury Prize matters.
BBC Album Reviews editor Mike Diver on why the Mercury Prize is a vital promotional event in the UK music industry.
Last night, PJ Harvey became the first artist in the 19-year history of the Mercury Prize to take home the award for a second time. Her eighth studio LP, Let England Shake, was the pick of the shortlisted 12, triumphing over collections from the likes of Adele, Tinie Tempah, Elbow, Metronomy, Ghostpoet and Anna Calvi - read reviews of all of the nominated albums here. She is a deserved winner, an artist who has only ever followed a path of her own design, never compromising for the sake of commercial success - though, through maintaining such integrity at every turn, she has attracted an audience large enough to send her victorious album into the UK top 10 when it was released in February 2011. She's a one-off, and artists of her ilk should be celebrated whenever an opportunity presents itself.
But, inevitably, the Mercury has again come under attack from certain corners of the music industry. Every year, there is criticism - disgruntled commentators bemoaning the high regard held for this popularity contest over any other (the BRITs aside, maybe); the fact that every album considered for the Mercury must pay an entrance fee (around £200 this year, plus a number of CDs for the judges); that the Mercury doesn't cast its net wide enough to recognise music from the heavier end of the spectrum, and that its picks from the jazz, folk and (previously) classical worlds are 'token' at best. It's natural, of course, to want to find fault with a process that one's own interests aren't involved with, so I can sympathise with label bosses, artists and associated individuals representing music that, to date, hasn't had a Mercury spotlight pointed its way.
The most notable genre yet to be shortlisted (if you discount Biffy Clyro, Muse and Therapy?) is metal - this year's Mercury shortlist announcement saw a small crowd of protestors assemble outside, noses out of joint because Bring Me the Horizon's (admittedly very good, and very worthy of a final 12 spot) latest album, There is a Hell..., was not in the running. Those noses straightened, rather, when it was later revealed that BMTH's record wasn't submitted for consideration. The band's label hadn't bought into the Mercury system, and there are smaller stables out there which will flatly refuse to pay to have their product included in the judging process. But from where I'm sat, the massive exposure the Mercury provides is well worth risking a (grand scheme of things) £200 or so - and, face it, if you truly believe in an album, you're going to want the best for it, aren't you? And that expenditure could produce better coverage than the same spend on a standard PR campaign ever could. Claims that the pay-to-be-played entry process is exclusive are nonsense, of course - by charging every entrant the same fee, the Mercury ensures this is an entirely inclusive set-up. Any album through any label of any size can be in the running - just look at how recent years have seen records by the likes of The Invisible, Sweet Billy Pilgrim, Burial and (this year) Ghostpoet feature amongst the shortlisted LPs. The labels in question don't have sacks of cash lying around. The albums weren't worked out of ivory towers. These are relatively low-level operations, comparable with those who have so far refused to put money where their hearts are.
Of course, there are those who genuinely cannot afford to enter their albums. Which is a shame. But suggesting that the award's entry system is in any way discriminating is an argument that holds water like a sieve. As for the award's bias towards mainstream sounds over those from the margins: bear in mind that the shortlist, and winner, is decided by a panel of judges; a consensus must be reached. The wilder the record, the less likely that many a listener will click with it. It's a fact of the matter borne out by record sales, by airplay, by festival slots, by almost every aspect of the public-facing side of the music business. Experimentation is encouraged - PJ Harvey is an artist who's always played with how her public perceives her, shifting styles from album to album like a chameleon alters its appearance from branch to branch - but fringe-level material is, unfortunately, sure to be the choice of a single soul rather than embraced by the majority of the Mercury panel.
Which might lead you to conclude that the Mercury isn't perfect. I'd agree. But it's a special event, the only awards ceremony in the UK that truly celebrates the art that goes into creating an album, a piece of work that - in today's commercial climate of digital sales and pick-your-own tracklistings - has perhaps lost some of the value it had before the rise of iTunes et al. The arguments that spin off from the shortlist, online and on air, are brilliant - every blog, every magazine, will have their own picks for who should or shouldn't be nominated; and, subsequently, the reader/listener discovers a load of new music. So it's actually the Mercury's 'failings' in the eyes of its critics that comprise the reason why it matters so much. If we all agreed, all of the time, on the records that make the final cut, how boring would that be? Personally, I'd stump the £200 or so just to have a faceless blogger on a website I'd never previously heard of write that the album in question was, or absolutely wasn't, a worthy contender. Because through this exposure, far beyond the ultimate list of 12, we can all discover the very best music that Britain and Ireland has to offer. We find ourselves drawn to the outsiders courtesy of alternative prizes (of which several now run every year), drifting from daytime playlists to after-dark noises, exploring new worlds that we'd never experienced before, all as a direct result of the Mercury selection.
But this is just my opinion. Feel free to disagree - it's the nature of the Mercury Prize, after all.