Otis Graham and Kate Bradley debate the merits of chucking gongs at musicians
So the Mercury Prize is once again looming large on the high-bow-pop horizon. Casting your eyes over the list of nominees, certain questions may spring to mind, such as: “who actually decides the winner?”, or “who the hell is Lianne Le Havas?”, but first and foremost you may be asking yourself: “why should I give a shit about the Mercury Prize?”. Why, indeed, should you care about any music awards? There are a lot of reasons why.
Music awards and music award ceremonies are often maligned, with varying degrees of justification. Categorising music, forcing it into competition, and having a select group of people decide the winner can easily appear shifty. But at its heart the concept of rewarding quality music (as with rewarding quality anything) is a good idea. We live in an age where more people than ever before are making music and it is more available than ever; the best music can easily be drowned out by the ever-proliferating din of crap that harasses us on the internet and on the radio. For this reason it is crucial to reward the artists who actually make songs or albums that are not only listenable, but actually really good.
This rewarding actually works as well. You, like most people, have probably spent long hours listening to The xx. But it was the band’s 2010 Mercury Prize win which launched them to fame, allowed them to reach a wide audience with their new album Coexist, and facilitated the intense post-breakup mopes of sensitive souls around the globe. Admittedly not all music awards are as dedicated to artistic quality as the Mercury Prize. But nonetheless, flashy ceremonies like the Grammys and the Brits work on the same principle, that artists who work harder and make better music than others in their field should be given recognition. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of a spectacle, and aside from the red carpets and “Imma let you finish” antics, there’s something about having the industry’s biggest names sat next to each other and laughing which just feels right.
So music awards are as relevant as they’ve ever been. They encourage artists to aim high and reward them when they do, they’re awarded by experts who know what they’re doing (the Mercury Prize’s independent panel of judges, though it may be difficult to admit, probably know good music better than you do), and they direct the public towards quality. They’re not going away, nor should they.
Who is nominated for the Mercury Prize this year? No, don’t look at the other page. Myself, I know one artist, and of course, they’re the one I want to win. I’m guessing this is the same for most people. Two of this years’ nominees don’t even have a Wikipedia page! At the risk of alienating any Masterminds whose special topic is ’21st Century Indie Music’, I suggest that there’s a reason so few people know – it’s because music prizes don’t matter.
Here’s a harder question. How is the winner of the Mercury Prize decided? It’s a harder question because the answer is hard to find. The Judging Panel is elusive, like a musical Big Brother – you can always Google the nominees, but the judges remain in the shadows. This leaves a curious onlooker wondering whose interests are being represented when the winner is chosen. From what I could gather, it seems to be picked by a panel of musicians, music executives, journalists and other figures in the music industry – a vague list, and an oddly discomforting one. Surely music executives shouldn’t be involved in the process of awarding bands, considering they almost certainly have vested interests somewhere? On the other hand, the alternative isn’t much better: when the public vote, the result is often down to how many times the band implored social networkers to “Click this link” on Facebook; or else, it’s pure populism, which is so often based on hype rather than longevity, originality or technical prowess.
However, you may ask, isn’t popularity the only fair measure of music? Seeing as music is such a subjective thing, bound inextricably with identity and memory, it’s different to art or literature. For someone who loves music, it influences everything from their judgments of people to the way they cut their hair. Except in a very small niche (i.e. this university), people don’t gather together just because they all like Virginia Woolf or Picasso – they may meet, but their appreciation is essentially solitary. Music is communal, binding, and so popularity is not tied to objective ‘quality’ or technical prowess, but to likes and dislikes. It’s easy to get bogged down in the dichotomy, to argue from each angle about what makes good music, but in the end, people will just listen to what they like, whether it’s experimental classical or chart-topping comedy K-Pop…
Besides, it doesn’t actually mean that much for an artist to win a prize anymore. The band themselves get the business equivalent of pocket money (usually used to pay off the debts they owe their record labels) and the fans get a little buzz for a week, and fuel for those pointless debates about whose favourite band is better. At most, a few people casually Youtube the band name. It’s free advertising, not critical acclaim. Music prizes just aren’t worth the mass apathy, or the suffering of everyone whose little sister wants to watch the Brits.
Robbie Williams has won 17 Brit Awards (including 5 with Take That.)
Pope Benedict XVI was nominated for a Classical Brit Award.
Westlife’s Brian McFadden attempted to start a fight with So Solid Crew by throwing water at them.
Ladbrokes offered 5-1 odds that Ozzy Osbourne would announce the wrong winner when he presented the Brits in 2008.
Radiohead have been nominated for 15 Brits, but are yet to win one
“The Mercuries were set up as an antidote to the Brits, which at the time was bloody corrupt.” – Virgin executive Jon Webster
Only one fifth of Mercury Prize nominees have been female
The video of Kanye West’s infamous Taylor Swift interruption has been watched 19,097,667 times on Youtube
Classical conductor Sir Georg Solti has won the the most Grammy awards, having notched up a total of 31