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Why Can’t Britain Put On One Decent Awards Show?

Only 189,000 people tuned in to watch the Mercury Prize this year. What happened? We used to be great at this.

You probably didn’t see the Mercury Music Prize ceremony last Friday night. Only 189,000 people tuned in to watch the event, aired on BBC 4 and hosted by Lauren Laverne from Broadcasting House. The ceremony itself was a stifled, placid affair: a few lifeless performances interspersed with VTs that reviewed Mercury Music Awards of yesteryear. The old footage and commentary from past winners such as Heather Smalls of M People was in stark contrast to the sexual-harassment-in-the-workplace seminar vibe of the 2015 effort. The night was almost redeemed by winner Benjamin Clementine and his genuinely impassioned tribute to the events in Paris, where he once lived - sometimes on the streets - but it still felt ultimately, like a complete waste of an hour and once again raised questions about whether the Mercury even matters anymore.


The Mercury Prize hasn’t always been a shambles though. In recent years, when it took place at the Roundhouse and was aired on Channel 4, it put on quite a show with flashy performances and healthy viewing figures. But after Barclaycard pulled out as a sponsor this year, the BBC stepped in to try and save the awards. Perhaps that was the problem - the BBC’s track record when it comes to award shows isn’t exactly inspiring. The BBC Music Awards, which began last year, hands out just three awards - Best Artist, Best International Artist and Best Single - and fills out air time with performances from anyone who made it to the Radio 2 A-list throughout the year. This year’s ceremony features the likes of Rod Stewart, Hozier, Ellie Goulding, James Bay, Jess Glynne and Mumford & Sons. It’s difficult to find less to celebrate.

The BBC Music awards seem like a bold spunk of licence payer money, given the threat of dismantlement that hovers over that establishment these days like a tower of luxury flats over London’s nightlife. The fact is that an awards ceremony on the BBC is too desperate to prove its artistic worth and value to the creative industries, to ever capture the underlying potential of an anarchic explosion at any moment, which is what televised award shows thrive on: just ask Miley, Nicki, Taylor and the organisers of this year’s VMAs.

It’s not just the BBC that have seemingly lost their way when it comes to hosting music award shows of scale. The quality of the BRITs has been in steady decline ever since they decamped from Earls Court to The O2 Arena, let James Corden host four years on the trot, and allowed the statue to be redesigned every year by artists and designers such as Tracy “Dirty Bed” Emin and Phillip “Big Hats” Treacy. Elsewhere, the NMEs get ever more white male entrenched and surly - this year there was one female winner - rewarding the same predictable names over and over again, and the Ivor Novellos, while prestigious, were never designed for public consumption. Only the MOBOs seems to capture a balance between commercial and underground, rewarding both established mainstream artists and promising new talent while their performance slots straddle the line of what is familiar and what is the emerging sound of youth - but it only airs on ITV2 and on a seemingly shoestring budget.


The frustrating thing is that we, as a nation, used to be great at this. The BRIT Awards was once a lightning rod for scandal and iconic moments that will on live forever in public memory and YouTube uploads. Jarvis Cocker mooning Michael Jackson, Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress, Oasis vs Blur, and even though we still largely relied on our international friends to raise the performance bar (Justin Timberlake squeezing Kylie’s bum, Kanye and his gold painted models, the Klaxons performing with Rihanna, Scissor Sisters and their Muppets) we still held our own. But the last decade of BRITs have been desperately unremarkable, with the only notable events being mistakes such as Adele’s speech being cut short, Kanye bringing out the entire UK grime scene being overriden by racially coded controversy, and Madonna being dragged halfway across the stage because of a cape malfunction. No performances have been standout, the audience largely behaves itself, and James Corden cheapened the proceedings with his low-wit brand of self-absorbed humour. Ant and Dec, about to host for a second year, might be charming, but Saturday Night light-entertainment hosts don’t really work on industry-leading award shows. You wouldn’t get Bruce Forsyth to host the BAFTAs.

Perhaps award shows are a dying relic of a music industry that is ever mutating and shifting as we get deeper and deeper into a digital future. There is a lot less money floating around which means the investment required from all sides to make awards shows grand spectacles is no longer there. The money problem also leads to a dearth of creative talent as the industry puts all its resources behind the safest bets leading to maelstrom of beige artists (the aforementioned Smith, Goulding, Glynne & Sons). And our consumption of media has changed beyond recognition with YouTube allowing everyone from young digital natives to your least tech savvy relative to wake up the next day, cherry pick the performances and the presentations they’re interested in watching, and leave the rest.

These are global problems, and yet, America is still smashing it when it comes to televised music awards. It hosts more of them throughout the year - Grammys, VMAs, AMAs, BETs, CMAs - and they are all of consistent quality with high end, incredible performances from their guest artists, just the right amount of drama and controversy to make it worthwhile to watch live, and the sense that (for the most part) the awards go to the right person and not just whoever was available to show up on the night. The truth is, having languished so far behind the UK for so long, the US is now leading the world in churning out bold, engaging artists making clever and exciting music and cultivating a richer soap opera narrative that ties all its brightest stars together. Even their hosts are routinely more diverse and entertaining: in 30 years only one non-white person has hosted the BRIT Awards - RuPaul with Elton John in ’94 - and of the six women with hosting duties only three have ever been given the responsibility of going it alone. The bottom line is, US award shows are more compelling because the cast is more diverse and the music is better, and that’s not something any UK broadcaster can fix in a year.

So what can be done? Ultimately, it is the music industry itself that needs to pull itself together, start investing more in talent outside of wealthy white people from the South of England and take creative risks so we can start looking at a more interesting landscape of personalities and sounds. British music is far from boring - just look at FKA Twigs, Skepta, Charli XCX, Krept and Konan, Disclosure, Hudson Mohawke, and Stormzy for starters - but organisers of these shows need to fix and start representing the landscape of UK music as a whole, not just the crop who started from the top and now they’re here. No more easy bookings like One Direction and Ellie Goulding to pull in eyeballs if it means having nothing else to look at for the other two hours. No more instantly forgettable performances of instantly forgettable songs, like Take That doing “Let In The Sun” (anybody?). Find presenters that aren’t I’m A Celebrity… standard or worse. And for god’s sake don’t let James Corden host anything ever again.

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