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Mercury has nasty side-effects

This article is over 19 years, 11 months old
The Mercury Music Prize nominations were announced last week. Phil Whaite takes a look at the albums behind the hype
Issue 1912

IT’S MERCURY Music Prize nominations time again. So the papers have been gushing about how music in Britain is incredibly rich and varied.

It is, of course. But no thanks to those who run the big record companies or the Nationwide Mercury Music Prize (in case one corporate sponsor wasn’t enough).

The prize, which started in 1992, is supposed to represent the best British music has to offer, and is supposedly a “credible” prize with a panel of “unbiased” judges from across the spectrum.

It is a very valuable competition even for those who don’t win the first prize of £20,000.

The big record chains push the nominated albums, and they fly off the shelves.

But rather than being a nice side-effect of the prize for the artists concerned, that’s the whole reason it exists.

Simon Frith, chair of the judging panel, says, “The original idea came from the then head of marketing at Virgin Records, who’d been discussing with retailers the problems of getting record buyers who are out of the habit (those over 25 or so) to listen to new artists…

“So what was needed was a prize which at a dead time of the year (July/August/September) would promote new British albums.”

The big record companies almost always determine what gets onto the Mercury shortlist.

They decide which of their bands to enter. Most of the time these are the bands they want to promote over the summer.

Could it be a coincidence that a fair few on the shortlist this year also have big festival appearances, such as favourites to win Franz Ferdinand?

Only 200 albums are entered every year by the labels, which doesn’t make for a very broad cross-section.

They are then whittled down to a shortlist of 12, and the winner is announced in early September.

Yet again this year the Mercury judges have selected a lot of the kind of safe, Radio 2 friendly fare that will appeal to the magic “over-25s” market.

How else do you explain the appearance of Keane, a band so safe they make Coldplay look like Megadeth? Slightly rockier, though no less dreary, are Snow Patrol.

A couple of the albums, however, do address what’s going on in the world today and do so with music that is fresh and challenging.

TY’s album, Upwards, has an excellent, original sound. Lyrically he is brilliant, and he is trying to do something new with hip-hop.

Upwards deals with love, 9/11, inner city life, the problems of being an artist who wants to make a difference, and a host of other issues.

Closing track “Music 2 Fly 2” is simply breathtaking.

Robert Wyatt’s Cuckooland, the “outsider” on the list, is packed with songs that cover diverse subjects.

These include the war on Iraq, the imprisonment of Israeli nuclear scientist Mordechai Vanunu, and the persecution of Gypsies in Nazi Germany and Roma in Eastern Europe today.

The incredible jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon appears on a number of tracks.

The album is packed with original and moving music that is a cut above most of the cliched rubbish that fills up the charts and the big record shops.

In among the middle of the road and fairly unoriginal music that makes up a good part of the shortlist there is some interesting stuff—Basement Jaxx, The Streets and Belle & Sebastian are definitely worth a listen.

But with popular music in the hands of a few giant multinationals, the push is always against things that sound too new, too different, too strange.

For them, the “safe” music is where the profits are.

Whoever ends up with the Mercury Music Prize, the real winners are the record companies.


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