Mercury Rising? The Mercury Music Prize and Meaning It, Maaaan!!

‘The contrast between music-as-expression and music-as-commodity defines twentieth-century pop experience’. So states the godfather of British Popular Music Studies, Professor Simon Frith, in his seminal article ‘The Industrialization of Music’ published in 1988. Don’t be fooled though, Frith is at pains to point out that while, even in the twenty-first century, we still might talk about ‘selling out’, authenticity, and the bastardising effects of the record industry (or at least the ‘Big Three’ of Sony BMG, Universal and the Warner Music Group) on artistic integrity, the idea that popular music can exist in some Platonic ideal before it is commercialised and sold is nothing other than an illusion. For Frith, popular music in all of its guises, is inherently created within a technologised and commercial idiom, right from the moment that it’s written to the moment that it ends up on your Spotify playlist. As a recorded medium, popular music is always inevitably constructed as a commodity. Even the most indie of indie artists still want to sell their music. Pop has always been a technological Frankenstein’s monster waiting to sell itself however best it can.

It’s that Mercury Music Prize time of the year again, and not only is the awards show back on the BBC this Friday evening, it, as ever, is providing what seems an eclectic range of artists who wouldn’t usually be troubling Sam Smith or Ed Sheeran at the more blatant bean-count-fest that is The Brit Awards. The Mercury Music Awards has always felt like a celebration of artistic endeavour, something more than a measure of commercial success. Writing this, I’ve just heard my personal favourite nominee for this year Ghost Poet talking about turning off his brain and making music with his heart on a Mercury sting on BBC 6 Music. Such sentiments echo the perception of art removed in some way from commerce, art for art’s sake. It’s not about being a radio-friendly-unit-shifter, it’s about meaning it, maaaan!

However, in reality, the Mercury Music Awards are as much of a shop window as The Brits, if not more so. Set up in 1992 by the British Phonographic Industry and the British Association of Record Dealers, its avowed aim is to ‘provide a snapshot of the year in music, to encourage debate and discussion about music, and to help introduce new albums from a variety of musical genres to a wider audience’ ( Previous winners such as James Blake, Alt-J and The XX have seen their sales quadruple in the wake of taking away the prize, and if nothing else, the shortlist often prioritises the independent end of the record industry. Seventy five per cent of this year’s nominees are signed to indies (perhaps the most punk-rock offering this year, Slaves, are on Virgin EMI, part of the Universal Music Group), while approximately 75 per cent of records released in the UK this year came from the Big Three. This inversion of focus is perhaps a celebration of the less-commercially oriented end of the music industry, but indies are businesses too, even SOAK needs to pay the bills (another personal favourite from this year’s nominees). If nothing else, despite its resolutely indie/alternative bent in terms of winners, its disavowal of anything vaguely approaching metal, or its increasingly middle-class feel, the Mercury Music Awards represents the twin concerns of popular music; to be artistically meaningful and to sell commercially, to be art and to be product. It’s no surprise then that Simon Frith has been Chairman of the judging panel for the last 23 years. Ghost Poet to win!

Dr Nathan Wiseman-Trowse - Associate Professor in Popular Music