As Sampha wins the Mercury Music Prize 2017 for his debut album Process, Getintothis’ Cath Bore wonders whether it’s still what David Bowie would have wanted.
Would Bowie win? How can Bowie not win? It’s a travesty if Bowie does not win. If Bowie doesn’t win I’m never buying any of his records ever again! That’ll show ’em.
In the most British way possible, when Bowie did not win, everyone agreed, along with Jarvis Cocker, raising eyes to the heavens in unison, that, “If David Bowie was looking down on the Hammersmith Apollo tonight, he would want the #MercuryPrize to go to….Skepta!”
Phew! Thank goodness for that. Panic over. As you were, everybody.
But, with the ceremony this evening, 12 months on, hidden away on BBC4 like a shame, I’m after a bit of controversy. For Bowie’s sake. And mine.
Or wear a t-shirt with the absolute boy’s face on. Or start a Mexican wave in his honour. Or bring along a placard even. He missed a trick there.
Loyle Carner in his Sun of Jean t-shirt, brought a gospel choir with him, a classy touch. Deadcrush from Alt-J lasted far longer than strictly necessary. J Hus‘ medley perked everyone up a bit, The Big Moon‘s Cupid is fresh and vital. Everyone agreed Blossoms looked dapper in their Sunday best.
Ed Sheeran delivers a loop pedal extravaganza in Miami, Kate Tempest gets a cheer before she’s even up; she’s bloody fierce once she’s here. Sampha stripped down to vocals and piano is nice, but a little too nice. Glass Animals are bouncy.
Let’s be kind and say it’s not the most stimulating list of albums on the shortlist this year and it’s still quite confusing – to me anyway – what the Mercury is actually for.
Claiming it celebrates the best albums by British and Irish artists is ever so wide of the mark.
In theory, the Mercury can say it supports the up and coming; seven of the 12 shortlisted are debuts, but it’s a very academic theory at best – on a piece of paper somewhere, ticked and stamped, folded up nicely and tidied away.
Above everything else, it’s the diversity, genre-wise, which makes the list relatively notable this year.
Tonight’s ceremony had mainstay Lauren Laverne sounding really rather posh. Her ever reassuring cheeriness and enthusiasm bolstered up by Idris Elba, actor, part time DJ and. for tonight, guest presenter.
— BBC Music (@bbcmusic) September 14, 2017
Still, celebrity wins out, which brings me onto the thorny issue of who the real winner is. Who genuinely bags the prize do we think? Sampha with that nice £25k cheque and trophy, or the already big sellers, with stadium tours?
Let’s not name names, but 2017’s biggest-seller so far, yes that one, the lad with the baby Martin guitar who sings about the smell of sex on his bedsheets, 2.1 million copies sold, has had a 4% sales increase since the shortlist was announced. 4% don’t sound much…but that 4% dwarfs everyone else.
Let’s look at some figures.
2017 Hyundai Mercury Prize for Album of the Year sales (source: Music Week / OCC)
Divide – Ed Sheeran 2.1m
Gang Signs & Prayer – Stormzy 209,442
Blossoms – Blossoms 117,309
I See You – The xx 87,896
Common Sense – J Hus 81,598
Relaxer – Alt J 33,908
How to be a Human Being – Glass Animals 27,824
Process – Sampha 25,652
Yesterday’s Gone – Loyle Carner 24,737
Let Them Eat Chaos – Kate Tempest 15,325
Love in the 4th Dimension – The Big Moon 4,485
Together, As One – Dinosaur 1,607
I’ve rounded the top one down to the nearest hundred thousand pounds.
The disparity between the lowest earner and the biggest – well, it makes sobering reading. And if you want to talk monthly Spotify listens, at 40,742,938 the top earner spanks nearest rival Alt J, who only manage a tenth of that.
The Mercury Music Prize claims it can ‘ignite public awareness of the winning album, and dramatically increase the profiles of all the shortlisted artists.’
That sounds wonderful, like a warm hug, but increased profiles and public awareness don’t pay the bills.
It’s not the Mercury’s fault, but it’s how it is, and needs to be said.
Is it what Bowie would have wanted? Well, is it? I’m looking upwards to the sky, but he’s not answering.
Editor’s note: Like The xx, Arctics and Dizzee – this year’s Mercury Prize was no brainer. You could see Sampha winning it a mile off. What’s different is that his victory makes 100% sense yet is still very much a victory for the rising star, the under dog and someone who’s yet to crossover fully into mainstream consciousness – a win which is sweet, for his songwriting abilities will surely touch new listeners. And that’s why this year’s Mercury, for this writer, means more than most in recent times. Sure Benjamin Clementine was a beautiful victory for the leftfield outsider, but whether that captured the public’s imagination is another matter – and for the Mercury to actually resonate and establish UK music as a vital force, it needs to select musicians who can charge full force into a more pop centre ground. I feel Sampha can do that. His pedigree as a writer for others is well documented – but on his debut, it’s laid bare for all to see, and it’s the rightful winner of this year’s prize. An obvious, but very deserved 2017 Mercury Prize success story. – Peter Guy