James Blake wins Mercury Music Prize
But this was the year when questions around how the Prize operates dominated the pre-match discourse
At some stage later today, James Blake will shuffle discreetly – or as discreetly as you can when you’re seven foot tall – into his local bank and lodge his Mercury Music Prize cheque. He was the surprise winner of last night’s bunfight, though it’s fair to say that the majority of winners of this prize are “surprises” if they’re not the out-and-out favourites or acts instantly recognisable on Planet Mainstream. In the case of Blake, he won it for his second album “Overgrown”, a record full of strong, sensual, timeless songs about love, life and loneliness. It’s a big jump on from his glorious debut and the work of an artist happily exploring and extrapolating his potential all the time.
Many will argue that there were better albums on the shortlist, but that’s the very nature of lists of any ilk and the reason why the Mercury Music Prize has managed to become part of the establishment. Everyone either loves or loathes a list and both sides of the coin are quite vociferous with their opinions, especially in this age of social media spewage. Since the very first Mercury Music Prize, the award has had its detractors, yet it has survived and thrived as it has gone about its business.
What’s interesting about this year is that there has been increased and overdue media scrutiny of how the Prize operates behind the scenes. While OTR has written several times before from this angle in the past, it’s noteworthy that others have now decided to get more forensic with the Mercury. Phil Hebblethwaite and Alex Marshall tackled the myths behind the event in this piece for Vice magazine, while Josh Halliday ploughed a similar furrow in the Guardian.
Two of the underlying themes from all of the above linked pieces are the largely undemocratic judging process – the applicant albums are pre-filtered by the Prize organisers and the votes of the judges then secretly collated – and the small number of entries relative to the huge number of albums released in any given year. The Mercury Music Prize may say that it’s the prize for the best album released in the UK and Ireland in any given year, but it’s really the prize for the best album released in any given year chosen from the couple of hundred artists who bother with the entry form. I will admit that the latter is more of a mouthful than the former when it comes to marketing spiels and press releases, but if it’s veracity you’re after, this is the way to go.
It will be interesting to see what, if anything, the Prize managers will do to deal with this unexpected outbreak of well-aimed and pointed belligerence about how it does its business. They’ve made minor nips and tucks over the year, such as changing the dates, but the actual process remaims largely the same as it has done from the outset. Given that the Prize is well able to operate with its current revenue model and economies of scale, it will probably take considerable pressure from its clients (ie the labels who enter the albums and keep the process ticking over) for any major change to occur. Right now, though, it’s congratulations galore to James Blake for a job well done and let’s see what the Prize will look like in 2014.