Some Thoughts on The Mercury Prize

I had meant to finish a piece on BBC 6Music but was overtaken by the Mercury Prize. Congratulations to Dave. (Label: Neighbourhood Records, distributed by Warner. Publishing: Warner-Chappell)

There seems to be a lot of cynicism around The Mercury Prize among those that live and breathe music. It is seen as a corporate entity that doesn’t often reflect the best music that is made in the UK. There is a truth there as the artists that are nominated are usually signed to major labels. Dave, like Stormzy, being on an independent label is seen as a guy that has done it all himself against all odds, but in reality his success owes a lot to the tremendous support from the major label Warner. What it means to be independent these days has become murkier.

The production company which runs the Mercury Prize and which decides how the winner is chosen is fairly secretive but we must remember that the award was set up by The British Association of Record Dealers which is now the Entertainment Retailers Association (representing for example itunes, Amazon, HMV, supermarkets and the 200+ Independent record shops that are involved in RSD every year including VoxBox) and the British Phonographic Industry which represents the record labels and distributors (mainly the major labels but has some representation from the larger independents like PIAS which is a label and a popular distributor).

Like many awards, it is designed to make money for the organisers and to do that effectively and appear authentic, they need to be seen to be inclusive of many different styles of music while aggressively advertising the majority of the acts that will be easier to sell to as many people as possible. Controversy is good and people talking about the award, even critically, is good for business. The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Thanks Oscar.

In my younger years, I thought that the Mercury was good in that I often had no idea who the winners or the nominees were and I therefore assumed that the judges had found talented urchins and helped shine the spotlight on them. In doing so, it may encourage other talented urchins to pay the £190 plus VAT to apply. After getting older, with baldness and grey hair, two young kids and somehow finding a few minutes to do some digging, I realised that even the relatively unknown acts that are nominated are usually on big indie labels and very often even the major labels. I know many very talented grassroots artists in Edinburgh and beyond that could take off with some UK-wide exposure and wondered if a self-releasing act with no distribution should apply for the Mercury? My conclusion is that the brutal truth is:

Anyway, I took some time to pick out the Scottish nominees and their record labels/distributors to see how Scots fare.

1992 Primal Scream (WINNER Screamadelica) (Creation/Sire/Warner)
1992 Jesus and Mary Chain nominated for Honey’s Dead (Blanco Y Negro -now owned by Warner)
1994 Primal Scream –Give Out But Don’t Give Up (Creation/Sire/Warner)
1995 James MacMillan –Seven Last Words From The Cross (Hyperion Records)
1997 Primal Scream –Vanishing Point (Creation/Reprise-Warner)
2000 Delgados –The Great Eastern (Chemikal Underground)
2000 Helicopter Girl –How to Steal the World (Instant Karma -ex-Warner chairman’s label)
2004 Franz Ferdinand (WINNER with Franz Ferdinand (Domino)
2004 Belle and Sebastian nominated for Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)
2005 KT Tunstall –Eye To The Telescope (Relentless Records/Virgin/now Sony)
2006 Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanagan –Ballad Of The Broken Seas (V2/Virgin-Universal)
2007 The View –Hats Off to the Buskers (1965 Records/SonyBMG)
2009 Glasvegas –Glasvegas (Columbia)
2010 Biffy Clyro –Only Revolutions 14th Floor (Warner)
2011 King Creosote and Jon Hopkins –Diamond Mine (Domino)
2012 Django Django –Django Django (Because Music)
2014 Young Fathers (WINNER with DEAD) (BigDada)
2015 C Duncan –Architect (Fatcat)
2016 Jamie Woon (Raised down south, Scottish mum) –Making Time (PMR/Universal)

The Mercury started with 11 nominated acts, then 10 from a couple of years then up to 12. From 1992 to 2019 I counted 340 and I am also including Gorillaz as they were already nominated before they asked to not be included in 2001. The Mercury mainly features UK artists although it also welcomes those from the Republic of Ireland. We have had 3 winners over the years which is a fantastic achievement and they have all done incredibly well.

Having 12 acts on the Mercury Prize shortlist is handy as it helps with working out how often we should see Scottish acts. On average, based on population, for every 10 artists based in England, Scotland should have one to add on, the Republic of Ireland should have one and Wales and Northern Ireland should argue about the other one to add on. 13 would actually be a better number but we should see a Scottish band nominated almost but not quite every year. Around 8% (which is 27 out of 340) of the acts should be Scottish. As it is, 5.6% (or 19 acts) are which doesn’t sound too far off.

If the Mercury Prize represented Scottish music more fairly, then there would be another 8 acts nominated over the past 28 awards. It may seem like splitting hairs, but I can think of 8 Scottish acts that could have been helped incredibly by the exposure over the years.

Trying to look for patterns you see that without Primal Scream in the early years of the Award, it would look like Scottish music was in real trouble. Also worth noting that Alan McGee’s Creation Records (Oasis and Boo Radleys were also Mercury nominees on Creation) and The Delgados label, Chemikal Underground are the only Scottish labels that have had artists nominated. Creation went bust and Chemikal have slowed their output in recent times.

That there have been no Scottish based artists in the past 4 years is a little concerning and noted is this article in The National. I have had high hopes that Mogwai’s label, Rock Action, would have had Mercury nominations in recent years with The Twilight Sad, Aiden Moffat & RM Hubbert, Kathryn Joseph, Sacred Paws and the ever productive Mogwai themselves. Rock Action is the biggest and I think, most important Scottish label at the moment and have consistently had great success with the Scottish Album of the Year Award. I am convinced the label is named after The Stooges drummer Scott Asheton who insisted that people call him “Rock Action” for a while. Equally concerning is that there hasn’t been a Scottish record label with a band on the shortlist since the year 2000. Domino do have a great Scottish contingent and FatCat have also signed many Scottish bands over the past 10 years.

Things were different in 1969 OK. The Stooges were signed to Elektra records on a whim based on the recommendation of The MC5 and three songs. They only had three songs.

Perhaps we aren’t entering in decent numbers? Not having many Scottish bands on major labels doesn’t help and the entry fee itself is prohibitive. Perhaps rightly so. Only around 220 bands pay the money to apply. We have plenty of small labels but many of the smaller Scottish labels often don’t have distribution and you need distribution to be sold in HMV/Fopp (although this is changing for local bands -eg Miracle Glass Company will soon be sold in Fopp Edinburgh). I would say that, judging by the history of the award, without a label and distribution an artist has a 0% chance of a Mercury nomination.

The period from 2004 to 2015 is more how it should look and is probably the best that it could realistically look. Artists on or connected to the 3 major labels, Warner, Sony and Universal and then those on the bigger Indie labels like Domino and Rough Trade.

Remember when My Bloody Valentine were ineligible for the award for their self released album M B V in 2013? They had chosen to sell it themselves through their website without a distributor. Read the first paragraph again -who set up the Mercury Prize? Shops, labels and distributors. The rules changed following this so that bands without distribution can apply. And waste their money?

Depressing reading? Yes. But it simply highlights an issue that we have in Scotland. We have a number of great music scenes, but in order for things to change, we must first be aware that there is something missing from the Scottish Music Industry these days. We are not very corporate which is very nice. Those involved in the Indie music scene may well eschew awards altogether as music is not a competition and that is fine. The downside is that when there isn’t much money kicking around, no one has a decent PR budget and the Scottish superstars of the future will be few and far between. A few percentage points of difference is significant when you also take into account that there is a few percentage points of difference in BBC coverage, press coverage, TV coverage and big festival slots and it is important to try to find ways to redress the balance. (The UK music industry is worth £5 billion so one extra percent is worth having)

How do we coax investment in the best musicians based in Scotland? Do we need the major labels to be picking up more Scottish acts? Or should we adapt to the market and start making Scottish grime?

As well financial implications, the lack of Scottish musicians in the music blogs, press and on magazine covers risks there being a lack of inspiration for the young and a gap in our artistic and cultural legacy.

6Music next week.

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