Exploding the Myths Around the Mercury Music Prize

By Phil Hebblethwaite and Alex Marshall

Another year, another carnival of abuse and suspicion for The Mercury Prize. The ceremony takes place tonight and will again see a band or artist walk off with £20,000 to piss away after a panel of ten people – chaired by a 67-year-old sociomusicology professor called Simon Frith – have somehow decided which of the 12 albums on a shortlist also drawn up by them is the year’s best.

It’s out of touch, too populist and unnecessarily secretive, say the haters, perfectly fairly. Only one album on the 2013 shortlist didn’t chart in the Top 20 (Jon Hopkins’ Immunity), five were number ones and we still know very little about the process and people behind the prize.

Try to find a picture of a man called David Wilkinson on the internet, or an interview with him. It’s like he doesn’t exist. Yet, he’s been running the prize since it was first thought up in the early-90s by Jon Webster, then MD of Virgin Records, who imagined it to be "the Booker Prize of the music industry". Wilkinson is still the boss and one of its three partners, along with Dan Ford – the company’s current managing director – and Kevin Milburn, a research fellow at the University of Exeter. Who? Exactly.

The prize is trumpeted as being entirely independent, but how can we be sure if the process and judging panel are kept secret? Unanswered conspiracy theories about the awards abound, so – in a bid to peek under the mask – we spoke to 15 people with insider knowledge of the process, from former judges to record labels and past nominees. "It’s a mystery to me, even after doing it many times," one ex-judge told us. Another said: "They think that a culture of secrecy around the prize adds to its mystique. Which is bollocks – it just makes people irritated."

We also emailed questions to David Wilkinson and received a statement and answers to a list of "Frequently Asked Questions" in response. It wasn’t the most helpful reply, but I guess he's a busy man this time of year.

PJ Harvey, the only artist to win the award twice. (Photo via)

Myth 1: The Prize Is Run by a Bunch of Old-Timers
True. Wilkinson is 67, and so is the chair of judges, Simon Frith. But neither Wilkinson nor Frith have a vote at either long or shortlist stage. Only the judges do, and they’re always of mixed ages. The list of judges for 2013, which will be officially revealed after the winner is announced tonight, include journalist Kate Mossman, Emily Eavis, Mary Anne Hobbs, NME.com editor Greg Cochrane and Mike Flynn from Jazzwise magazine – all of whom range from somewhere in the late twenties to the later end of the forties.

Myth 2: The Chair of Judges, Simon Frith, Is in Bed with the Business Side of the Prize
Not true, but he has been in the past. The organisers say, "Simon Frith chairs all the judging meetings and discussions to ensure editorial independence. He is independent from the Mercury Prize production company." However, company records show he was a director from the 29th of May, 1998 – the day the current company, Mercury Music Prize Ltd, was established – up to the 31st of March, 2000.

Myth 3: The Prize Is Run from an Office Above a Dodgy-Looking Jewellery Shop in Central London
True! Here's a picture:

Myth 4. The Prize Is Too Expensive for Small Independent Labels
Not true. It costs £170 plus VAT (£204) to enter, and only the most pathetic indie label would consider that a lot of money. "If you can’t afford to dip your hand in your pocket if you have an eligible record that’s had some decent press and radio, then you probably shouldn’t be releasing records," one (non-pathetic) indie label told us.

However, if you get shortlisted, costs do rise. On the night of the prize, each band member plus one extra person (usually their manager) gets a free seat at a table. Labels then pay £400 each for extra seats.

But keep things in perspective: you may not end up selling an extra 150,000 albums if you win, as used to happen, but no label we spoke to thinks it’s bad value as a promotional exercise (and especially not since iTunes replaced HMV as an official partner and an excessive marketing charge of around £4,000 per album was dropped).

Myth 5: The Prize Disqualifies Self-Released Albums
True. Strictly speaking, the Mercury Prize is not an award for the "Albums of the Year", as it claims to be; it’s an award for "Albums of the Year That Record Labels Have Bothered to Send In At a Cost of £204, Have Mainstream Distribution and Are Available to Purchase Via iTunes," as My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields found out this year, much to his annoyance.

Myth 6: The Judges Don’t All Listen to Each of the 200 to 250 Albums They’re Sent
True, and it’s a major flaw in the process. The organisers claim that, "The judges listen to all the albums entered. This takes several months, they then meet to discuss them."

Not quite. The deadline for entries this year was July the 10th, and all judges had to submit their votes for the longlist of 25 by late August. Let's assume most of the judges have full-time jobs and aren't just kept in stationery cupboards, ready to be sat in front of a stereo for a month and a half – it would be very hard to listen to 250 albums in that time while still earning money and not completely alienating everyone you love.  

In fact, all but one of the judges we spoke to admitted they fell short. Instead, the process tries to cover its arse by having a broad range of judges – so, for example, a jazz expert can listen to the jazz entries (and, at this stage, not bother with the assault of landfill indie). Plus, a chunk of the albums each year are submitted by a Christian label as a form of evangelism. Do you really expect judges to bother?

Myth 7: The Organisers Are Hammering the Phones Before the Entry Deadline to Get Labels to Enter Albums
True, but don’t read anything into that. It’s in the financial interest of the prize to have as many entries as possible, but they also want a wide-ranging selection of albums for the judges to hear.

Alt-J winning the Mercury Music Prize last year. 

Myth 8: The Longlist of 25 Is Manipulated by the Organisers
The worst that can be said of the process is that it lacks transparency. In late August, after having filed their 25 personal selections from the 200 to 250 albums, each judge receives a call – shortly before getting together for a meeting – telling them which 25 albums have made the prize longlist. That list is never published, nor is the initial list of albums entered.

Is the longlist of an exact result of counting up votes cast by the judges ahead of the shortlist meeting? The judges don’t know, because the organisers don’t tell them. We did ask the Prize for a list of all votes for the last two years, but they were “incredibly busy ahead of the Awards Show”. We’d still be happy to see them.

Myth 9: The Shortlist of 12 Is Manipulated by the Organisers
Again, the worst you can say is that this part of the process lacks transparency. At their meeting, each judge votes for 12 albums they feel best meets the criteria of the prize, which was described by music journalist Jude Rogers in a piece for the Guardian about being a judge as: "An award for a record that sounded fresh and original, that moved music forwards not backwards, that was contemporary rather than retro, that was consistent in its vision and execution, that could capture music in Britain… without any recourse to fashion, trends or tittle-tattle."

Is the shortlist an exact result of counting up votes cast by the judges at the meeting? Once again, we just don’t know, nor do the judges, and the organisers categorically deny involvement in the process. Many former judges, however, have expressed concern that the shortlist is not announced publicly until two weeks or more after their meeting. They also give examples of when records that were heavily backed in the meeting didn’t make the list, or vice versa, though of course there could be innocent reasons for this – a strongly backed record may not receive enough votes to make the shortlist.

"I remember one year, Lily Allen’s debut got to the first stage, and at least seven of the judges liked it," one told us. "That means it’s normally a shoo-in for the shortlist, but it didn’t appear. And that made me think an executive decision was made that it shouldn’t be on there. They thought it wouldn’t have been good for the prize’s image."

That said, it’s etiquette among the judges to not ask each other which albums they voted for, and in their statement to us the organisers said: "There is absolutely no basis for any suggestion that the selection of the shortlist and winner is based on anything other than the views, opinions, discussions and votes of the judging panel. No one from the production company has any involvement as a judge – or any involvement in the judging panel's decisions or votes. Neither David [Wilkinson] or Dan [Ford], or anyone else involved with the production company, is a judge."

There are potential reasons for skewering the list: commercial, to maintain the image of the prize, artistic, the availability of the band or artist to play at the awards and so on. The Mercury Prize is a for-profit business and, although it’s a small company, the awards are sponsored by Barclaycard (as well as these partners) and the announcement’s made live on Channel 4. Tonight, there are also 780 dinner attendees, the vast majority of whom will have paid £400 a seat. It’s a big show, and big shows, you could argue, require big names to be on a shortlist.

Myth 10: The List of Judges Is Kept Secret Because There's Foul Play at Work
Not true. At all. They haven’t got a fucking clue what’s going on. The Mercury Prize doesn’t release the judges’ names because they don’t want them to get hassled/bribed/spat at, and the judges are thankful for that.

Myth 11: The Judges Are All Taking Back-Handers from Labels
Again, not true. None of the judges we spoke to has ever been lobbied, and they don’t get paid.

Myth 12: The Jazz and Classical Albums That End Up On the List Are "Token" Entries That Don’t Stand a Chance of Winning
Again, not true. There have been years when they’ve almost won, and from the past judges’ point of view there is no prejudice against them. Mind you, no jazz or classical record has ever actually won. But that's possibly because not many jazz or classical records move "music forwards not backwards".

Myth 13: The Prize Is Prejudiced Against Dance Music and Metal
Tricky one. Metal certainly never gets a look-in, not even on the official entry information form: "The Prize is open to all types of music, including pop, rock, folk, urban, dance, jazz, blues, electronica, classical…"

With regard to dance music, one previous judge says: "The Mercury has been pretty rubbish with dance music, especially as it’s fractured and divided into myriad sub-genres over the past two decades. Part of the problem is that the prize is album-based, when much of the energy in dance music comes from singles. The Mercury kinda understood trip hop fine, because that was very album based, but never really got a handle on drum'n'bass, 2-step, garage, dubstep, etc. [Dizzee being the exception to the rule, obviously]."

Myth 14: The Winner Is Decided Before the Night of the Award
Not true. The winner really is chosen on the night. The judges turn up at the Roundhouse in Camden at 5PM and have their initial winner’s meeting. They’ve all had six weeks to fully digest the shortlist albums and it’s usually with some ease that at least half (or more) of the entries can be discounted. They break at 6.30PM to watch the artists perform – under strict instructions, because this is an album prize, to not let the performances affect their thought processes – and eat dinner. Then it’s back behind closed doors to thrash it out. Sometimes the judges have picked a winner with 30 minutes to spare, but it often goes right down to the wire.

Antony Hegarty, 2005 Mercury Prize winner. (Photo via)

Myth 15: Simon Frith Always Railroads the Final Meeting
How long is a piece of string? Previous judges have mixed feelings about Simon Frith. In a 2003 Guardian piece, Trevor Dann – former head of BBC Music Entertainment – wrote: "As befits his academic credentials, Frith is a forensic, pernickety, often maddeningly proper chairman." Which is basically a polite way of saying that he's a "benign dictator" and can be "pompous", as others have told us.

"He’s been writing about music for a long time and is slightly fuzzy," an ex-judge explained. "He would be happy to give the prize to the token jazz and classical act each year, but he has his ideas of what music should be and that could have a bearing on things, often giving the feeling that one album had been ‘anointed’ the winner. We’d get a bit of a push – not an explicit one, but I’m sure you could get an expert in neuro-linguistic programming into the meetings and they’d point out all the subtle ways the judges were being influenced."

We’ve heard several examples where people felt led to make a decision, such as in 2005 when it was apparently a dead heat between Antony And The Johnsons’ I Am A Bird Now and Hard-Fi’s Stars of CCTV. Antony’s might be a more Mercury suitable record, it was hinted, and – although Hard-Fi's debut is no doubt a modern classic – who could really argue with that?

Myth 16: The Prize Is Getting More and More Populist
Again, how long is a piece of string? Last year, the prize was accused by the broadsheets of being "too obscure". This year, the list – which includes the Arctic Monkeys, Disclosure and Rudimental – is clearly more mainstream, but we've got no idea who the judges will pick next year.

The labels have mixed views, with most thinking – in general – that it is becoming more populist.

"It’s great that Speech [Debelle] won [in 2009]," said Peter Quicke, MD of her label, Ninja Tune / Big Dada. "But, as we discovered, Speech was not a populist choice – the record didn’t sell massively. We got the distinct impression that the Mercury Prize didn’t like the fact that the album didn’t go on to sell well, and it seems to us that the shortlist has been more commercial or populist ever since. It seems it’s clear the prize is about big popular records now, not interesting music. I don’t think Ty [nominated in 2004 for Upwards] or Speech would be nominated again."

Myth 17: The Organisers Don’t Even Like Music
Not true. No past nominees, ex-judge or label questions the three directors’ love of music, or Simon Frith’s.

Myth 18: Labels, Judges and Nominees Think the Prize Is Worthless
Not true. Everyone we spoke to thinks the prize does far more good than harm. And besides, what’s the alternative? Watching Ben Howard clean up at the Brit Awards?

Follow Phil (@phil_hebble) and Alex (@as_marshall) on Twitter.

Illustration by Krent Able.

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