The Mercury Prize 2019 reflection – poisoned chalices, industry back-slapping and Sleaford Mods


The Hyundai Mercury Prize 2019

With the Mercury Prize over for another year, Getintothis’ Simon Kirk looks at its relevance and whether winning the award is all it’s cracked up to be.

Award ceremonies.

Aren’t they just an excuse for industry types to get together and exchange empty compliments and backslaps?

We’ve all got an opinion on them.

In fact, sitting around a pub discussing such a topic would certainly stir up the atmosphere, it certainly beats a bunch of people quietly hovered over their smartphones whilst periodically taking a sip of their drink.

I often hear that the Mercury Prize is an alternative to the BRIT Awards.

Over the years pop music has crept up behind alternative music to the point where both almost co-exist, many young people these days share a love for both pop and alternative music more so than in the past.

Just look at the major festival line-ups across Europe this summer, which heavily featured pop artists, this has been more and more the case for at least the past five years and will certainly continue.

My point?

Well, this alternative business is starting to become misleading. What even is alternative music anymore?

Dave wins the Hyundai Mercury Music Prize 2019 – what Getintothis learnt

If such prizes catered for something ‘alternative’, then why haven’t there been more metal bands among the nominees over the years? This is certainly not the case and the bastard child of music as we know it still remains confined to lick its wounds in the loft.

Then there’s the whole sponsorship debate.

I get it, money in music continues to recede, to the point where reputable online music publications are making commissions from record labels for album reviews. Who thought that would ever eventuate?

So I get it, there’s a plausible argument that outside money is required – in this case, Hyundai. However, the Mercury Prize has been gaining outside money from its inception – it seems to have only become a sore point amongst the majority since the rise social media.

Or maybe that coincided with a bank, Barclays, being a major sponsor at the time?

On the flipside, where something as prestigious as the Mercury Prize is concerned, is there a need for outside money? I’m sure each label is gunning for their horse to win and what do punters do at the races other than passionately back their beast of choice?

Dave, Hyundai Mercury Prize winner (Twitter @MercuryPrize)

Looking at some of the record sales statistics of eventual winners and record labels stand to gain a considerable financial windfall from one of their artists winning the Mercury Prize.

That’s business. It’s no secret that independent labels operate close to the lines. They always have done.

Major labels, not so much. History tells us that if it turns to shit, they just merge or are bought out by a rival major.

The task of independent labels has grown far more difficult over recent years, not least due to online streaming, if something like the Mercury Prize increases their chances of existence then that can only be a positive thing, surely?

Is it the cross-pollination of capitalism and socialism? Ideological enemies the same way pop and alternative music seemingly once were, now co-existing to achieve a common goal?

I’m not so sure, but it’s a question that could certainly spark debate.

In terms of the this year’s nominations for the Mercury Prize and, granted, they were far more interesting than in recent years gone by. And it’s not because music, holistically, is in vogue.

Singles, maybe, but the album itself has been on the wane, largely due to listeners finding it increasingly difficult to allocate the time an album deserves. Sadly, the album has not fared too well in this modern world.

So considering this, it’s rather ironic that the nominees shortlisted were as strong as they were. Perhaps it’s the political climate, Many said this year’s award contained the highest number of politically charged nominees since its inception.

While that may be the case, one band didn’t seem to get the memo and it’s arguably the artist who awoke beast from its slumber where politics in music in the United Kingdom is concerned, ultimately providing a path for certain nominees to ply their trade.

I’m talking about Sleaford Mods.

Having made more albums than Fontaines D.C., Idles and Slowthai put together, Sleaford Mods‘ exclusion was not only mystifying but to learn they have not had one nomination over the years is beyond staggering.

Perhaps Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn didn’t want to pay the £228 (including VAT) to enter their nomination? Yes, that’s right, you have to pay an entrance fee for the Mercury Prize.

Sleaford Mods – why weren’t they nominated?

You couldn’t make it up…

As for the prize money, again – speaking of memos – it appears those involved with the Mercury Prize didn’t get the one about inflation because the winner’s prize money, amounting to £25,000, seems, well… modest.

The trophy looks nice, though.

While I’m sure the exposure is great (Elbow‘s 2008’s winning album, Seldom Seen Kid, grew in sales by 700 per cent), how much money does the artist see of this? Do labels use this royalty money to sign new artists? I haven’t seen rosters of independent labels growing that much.

Back to the prize money and Hyundai are certainly not on the breadline. For a start, they successfully outbid one of the United Kingdom’s major banks (Barclays) to secure a three-year sponsorship deal with the Mercury Prize.

While £25,000 might seem a lot to some, it’s below the average salary in London, the city of residence of the last five Mercury Prize winners. And, to be blunt about it, £25,000 to Hyundai is barely a piss in the ocean.

I’d hazard a guess that there were executives sat at their tables on Thursday night during the ceremony drinking wine just as expensive, after seeing Foals open up in such insipid fashion, perhaps you couldn’t blame them.

Moving on…

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There’s an argument that awards can act as a poisoned chalice and the Mercury Prize has had this notion levelled at it for some time. As more eloquently put by Gorillaz fictional bassist, Murdoc Niccals, it’s “like carrying a dead albatross round your neck for eternity”.

Perhaps it’s a moot point, but honestly, who was the last Mercury Prize winner to go on and make a better album? At a pinch, Primal Scream?

While XTRMNTR pushed the boundaries of rock music, it didn’t ape Screamadelica‘s artistic relevance – the latter album continues to be their defining moment amongst the masses.

Portishead? Badly Drawn Boy? Arctic Monkeys? Franz Ferdinand? Dizzee Rascal?
No, no, no, no and, you guessed it, no.

Even PJ Harvey – the only artist who has won the award twice – seemed to suffer a little from this curse after the award-winning Let England Shake, with the underwhelming follow-up in The Hope Demolition Project.

That’s not even mentioning Ms Dynamite, who was a special guest at Bongo’s Bingo earlier this month.

Pretty sure she wouldn’t have envisaged that when she won the Mercury Prize for her 2002 debut album, A Little Deeper.

So, with that, while Dave took the spoils on Thursday night for his debut album, Psychodrama, and while I very much hope he can continue grow artistically and break through this apparent bulwark, he’s very much up against it.

The elation of winning something and £25,000 might seem nice, but on the flip side, as history suggests, it can all go south very quickly.

The trophy will look nice on the mantle, though.