Live Music Exchange Blog

Reflections on the Mercury Prize – Simon Frith


In this, the last blog post of 2016, Live Music Exchange’s own Simon Frith reflects on his 25-year tenure as the chair of the judges of the Mercury Prize to consider what has – and hasn’t – changed within the UK record industry over the last quarter of a century.

On September 15, after Skepta was awarded the 2016 Mercury Prize, I stepped down from my role of chair of the judges, a job I’d been doing for 25 years, since the prize started in 1992 (when it was given to Primal Scream’s Screamadelica).

I loved being involved with the Mercury Prize for many reasons.  It meant I still got hundreds of free records every year even though I was no longer reviewing them; I met a variety of interesting people, my fellow judges; I liked talking about music and having to manage meetings of opinionated people who liked talking about music too; I think our decisions made a difference to some people’s careers and other people’s record collections.  And, as an academic, I got a ringside view of how the UK record industry worked and how it has changed over the last quarter of a century, which is what I want to discuss here.  I’ll do this in three ways: first in an overview, then by looking at institutions and ideologies.


The Mercury Prize was launched in the early days of digital recording—in the first year or two entries still came in as cassettes as well CDs—but has so far survived the so-called ‘digital revolution’ (and many of the artists who entered the prize in 1992, not least Primal Scream, are still making and entering albums). The received wisdom about the digitisation of music is that it has made the album insignificant; listening is now organized around downloading and sharing single tracks.  But from a Mercury perspective this is not true.  Albums continue to be made (for many musicians the album remains the art form of choice).  Indeed, the number of Mercury entries has risen annually pretty well every year.  The most significant digital effects on the prize have been, rather, the change in consumer demographics, the change in the ways in which new music is heard, and the change in relations between niche and mainstream tastes.

The Mercury Prize was conceived as a way of reaching an older demographic, thought to be lapsed record buyers.  Today the more pressing need is to encourage adventurous listening among a younger demographic, potential record buyers/users.  The decline of physical sales—the retail sector was originally the Mercury’s key partner—and the rise of digital distribution services, most significantly Spotify, means that the main aim of the prize is no longer to get people to go into record shops and buy records.  The aim now has to be to get people to check out tracks and artists online and in concert.  There is still evidence that a Mercury nomination helps performers build their live audience (and thus their long term sales).  There is less evidence that a nomination has a major or, at least, lasting effect on, say, Spotify plays. Certainly the immediate sales effect of a Mercury nomination is rather less now than it used to be.

The Prize has always seen itself as potentially crossing acts over from niche to mainstream markets, or from an established fan base to a broader public.  Judges are asked to consider whether a particular genre record is likely to appeal to people who don’t usually listen to such music.  But this kind of crossover listening has become more unusual in a digital world in which people can effortlessly construct their own playlists, dismiss forever any track they don’t immediately like, and have their introduction to new music controlled by algorithms which ensure it sounds much like the music to which they are already listening.  At the same time, music broadcasters increasingly avoid programming that mixes different sorts of music.  To today’s broadcast scheduler, the John Peel Show (and even Top of the Pops) would seem riskily eclectic.  The Mercury Prize’s basic premises, that it celebrates a great range of music and gets people to listen to music they didn’t know they liked, are now, from a TV perspective, a liability.  There isn’t a television audience for a programme covering so many different musical tastes.

In recent years, then, the Prize has increasingly been seen by the public not as a way of getting to know about unfamiliar music, but as serving more specific ends.  Many people seem to believe either that the Mercury Prize is a way of publicising albums on independent labels or that its purpose is to draw attention to new acts.  It is certainly the case that the majority of Mercury shortlisted acts and winners in recent years have been on indie labels, and the Prize continues to give most of these artists a degree of publicity they couldn’t otherwise afford.  A majority of shortlisted albums have probably been debuts too, though this has varied from year to year, and there’s no doubting the particular importance of the Prize for newcomers.  Getting their first albums onto the Mercury list was much more significant for Amy Winehouse and Adele than winning the Prize with their subsequent super selling albums would have been.

The Mercury Prize has not been reshaped as a prize for either debut or indie acts (such prizes exist in other countries) because such a move would have meant changing two key aspects of its underlying logic: first, that it celebrates the variety and richness of British music making and, second, that new, niche or unknown records on the list benefit greatly from the presence of albums by established, mainstream and successful acts.  The credibility of the prize—its claim to honour records for their quality rather than their sales figures or promotional budget—has meant short listing best selling records and famous artists as well as new or little known acts, who benefit precisely from appearing alongside the stars.   The Mercury principle of treating all records equally is the reason why musicians like the Prize.  Such celebration of musical diversity involves not just ‘token’ jazz and folk acts but also ‘token’ mainstream albums.  The question now, though, is whether consumer tastes are still as fluid as this marketing model assumes.


The origins of the Mercury Prize can be simply described but its consequent practice has involved a complex institutional nexus. The Prize was conceived by Jon Webster (then at Virgin, later chief executive of the Music Managers Forum) and backed by the BPI as a marketing initiative, a way of selling new records to a broad market (the model it initially looked to was the Booker Prize).  It was realised from the start that to be effective, such a prize would need to be credible to the public.  Potential record buyers would need to believe that Mercury recommendations reflected their musical qualities rather than marketing budgets—the Mercury Prize had to be seen as clearly not the Brits.

The Prize therefore had to be organised by an independent company, distinct from the BPI, funded, rather, by sponsorship.  Sponsors could only be attracted by the promise of significant and supportive media coverage, which entailed a sufficiently glamorous presentation event, a show that would attract media attention, and from early on it was realised that this meant that it had to be televised (a broadcast television show was then by far the best way of generating press and other media coverage).  This had its own consequences: for a TV show to be feasible for a broadcaster it has to feature TV audience-friendly acts.  Meanwhile, for the record companies involved, it was equally important that the Prize had a significant retail effect; the shortlisted albums needed to feature in in-store racking, window displays and shop ads.

In summary, the Mercury Prize, in its successful development, had to satisfy a number of different institutional interests: record companies, which entered the albums and supported their marketing; artists and managers, who agreed to be entered, to play a part in promotional activities and to attend/perform at the final show; sponsors­, who paid for the show; a television company, which broadcast it; and retailers, who marketed and sold the nominated titles.  All these people had to be kept happy, all were necessary if the Prize was to achieve its goal: to persuade consumers to treat the Mercury shortlist as interesting and credible enough to take seriously, which would lead finally to increased record sales, the object of the whole exercise (so that, each year, Music Week duly reports the percentage increase in album sales following their Mercury appearance).

In broad terms, from a Mercury perspective, the network of interests involved in successful music marketing remains in place, but the cultural and technological changes of the last quarter of a century have affected the different institutions differently, giving the network a rather different shape.  This is what I’ve noticed.

Digital technology has meant more not fewer record companies, more not fewer album entries.  There are now far more micro-labels, vanity projects (from old rockers), self-released albums (from new ones), and niche outlets (such as jazz labels).  From a judging point of view, this is both a good and bad thing: there’s a bigger range of music but less quality control.

There’s been a significant decline in promotional budgets and a significant increase in the relative autonomy of artists and their managers, again with good and bad effects (depending on their career situation).  Declining funds for promotion have affected potential sponsors as well as record companies; they have less money to give and they expect a more measurable return.  The rather vague approach to sponsorship as branding and positive publicity has become a much sharper focus on marketing opportunity.  Barclaycard was, from my academic perspective, much the most interesting Mercury sponsor because it had a clear strategy of getting direct benefit from its music event investment, looking to use digital technology to embed its card services in live event ticket buying, for example.

Although the Mercury show has occasionally been shown on Channel 4 it has been primarily a BBC event.  The BBC’s public service ethos means that unlike the commercial channels it has a continued commitment to the music audience, while the Mercury ethos is more aligned to the musical values of, say, ‘Later … with Jools Holland’ (and Radio 6) than to Channel 4’s one-time music/ youth branding or to ITV’s light entertainment.  That said, there’s no doubt that even the BBC’s interest in music programming has declined over the last 25 years, whether as cause or effect of the equally steady decline in the audience for music television generally—You Tube is now a much more significant site for visual music marketing.

This reflects a general reshaping of the map of musical promotion.  If record retailers are obviously now of marginal significance, the declining importance of the music press has been equally striking, an aspect of the waning of critical authority generally and the reduced power of so-called gatekeepers (including Mercury judges) in the circulation of sounds.  In the online world the function of the Mercury shortlist is not to bring music to listeners’ attention but to provide a topic of conversation among people who already know what they like and don’t like.


The paradox that lies at the heart of the Mercury Prize (and the Booker Prize too, come to that) is that something devised and designed to sell records—whatever else it is the Prize is essentially a sales device—does this through an account of its judging criteria which stresses their independence of commercial judgements—the Prize is presented as explicitly not a marketing device.  The task for David Wilkinson, who was contracted by the BPI to run the prize (and with whom I worked throughout my Mercury years) was thus to establish it as an arts prize, a celebration of artistic quality rather than commercial success or export sales (the model here was the Turner Prize).  I was consulted early on about what this would entail, initially in terms of how judging should work but also more generally with regard to entry rules and what the Mercury Music Prize meant by ‘music’.

The arts prize model had a number of effects on how the Prize has worked, four of which are worth noting.

First, the judging process has always been rooted in discussion rather than voting both because judging-by-discussion is a good way of expressing the judges’ independence and equal importance and because it helps to produce a positive rather than negative buzz: people’s enthusiasm for particular albums becomes much more significant than other people’s lack of enthusiasm.  It is easier to achieve consensus about who should win or what should be on the shortlist if different views have been fully argued (and I always thought it was better to have a winner who inspired strong feelings for and against, rather than one whom everyone “didn’t mind”).  Judging-by-discussion also has the unpredictable results that are part of the appeal of the Mercury, not least to the judges (if not to music critics) and one of the Prize’s most obvious differences to the Brits.  It’s also a reason, I think, why such a variety of people and labels continue to enter their albums.  Unexpected names on (and not on) the shortlist support their belief that the prize is ‘fair’ and not just based on marketing muscle or received opinion.

Second, the prize has always been open to all albums, regardless of genres, something for which it has been much mocked but which has been, I believe, absolutely central to its importance.  The Prize has given ‘niche’ British music such as jazz and folk an attention it wouldn’t otherwise get, and it has picked up emergent genres quite quickly (Asian-British acts in the 1990s, grime more recently)—this is in telling contrast to the Brits.   But the arts prize point is this: genre distinctions describe taste boundaries (which are increasingly significant in the digital age) but not music making differences.  The most interesting albums musically, however they are labelled, draw their ideas from an eclectic range of musical sources and, interestingly, this has become a mark of the ‘Britishness’ and contemporary relevance that the judges look for in choosing ‘the albums of the year’.

Third, the Mercury shortlist has always been understood as involving editorial choices rather than metrics.  Judges are asked to consider the shortlist in terms of the range of music entered, the contrasts between sounds, genres, approaches and ambitions, the different ways music appeals to different people.

Which brings me, finally, to value judgements.  What interests me here is that the contradiction built into the Prize—between art (or authenticity) and commerce—is necessarily built into the judging process too.  Shortlisted albums are distinguished from the mass of entries by reference to such terms as character, personality, originality, exploration, achievement and impact, but all these terms are used in the context of what is understood as a tug-of-war between expressive impulse and sales package.  Over the years judges have tended to value jagged edges and raw sounds over the smoothing (or standardising) effects of record companies hoping to make artists fit (or be fit for) the market.  The irony is that, in the end, the Prize itself is part of that marketing process.


In 2015 Barclaycard’s sponsorship of the Mercury Music Prize come to an end, and the independent company that ran it was taken over by the BPI, perhaps an apt conclusion to my story, both because the starting principle of the prize was that it shouldn’t be run by the BPI and because, according to academic wisdom, the BPI, a record industry trade body, shouldn’t be in a position to run it anyway.  I can’t say, after serving two years under the new regime, that it has made any difference to the judging process or results, though the shift in power among the various institutions involved is clear (and I have no doubt that, as an event, the Prize will be marketed differently in the future).

I want to finish, though, as I’m writing on the LMX site, with a different point.  Although the Mercury is a prize for albums (and judges have always been firmly instructed to consider only the music on the album), it has nevertheless been imbricated with live music in at least three respects. It culminates in (and gets most publicity from) a live show; the effects of a Mercury nomination are increasingly measured in terms of ticket rather than record sales; and, most interestingly for me, it turned out to be exceedingly difficult for judges to discuss albums without constantly referring to live performance.  It is clear to me, then, that in the play of forces that defines contemporary music, the relation between recorded and live music is still central, and the assumption that record companies are becoming irrelevant is just plain wrong.  Looking back over 25 years of the Mercury Prize I’m more struck by how little has changed than by how much has.  In many ways things are still what they used to be.

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *