The Mercury Prize: What Is It Good For?

Existential questions surround British pop music’s Booker. MOJO staff reflect.

The Mercury Prize: What Is It Good For?

THE BARCLAYCARD MERCURY PRIZE nominations are announced tomorrow (Laura Mvula, bound to be nominated, is pictured above), and apart from a certain amount of sympathy for the shadowy judges, and their chairman Simon Frith, who must settle on 12 great albums made by British artists over the last 12 months (September-September is their usual catchment) MOJO frets more than ever about the role of the now 22-year-old award, its purpose and criteria, and the efficacy of the so-called Mercury Effect (if only it were as easily defined as this). Good thing? Bad thing? Confusing thing? Raging intra-office debate settled on the following Fors and Againsts…



1/ Albeit on a micro level, the Mercury is one of a very few British institutions to support non-classical forms of music with hard cash. (Although the award seems to have been £20,000 for rather a long time now. How about diverting some more of those misappropriated PPI millions, Mr Barclaycard?)

2/ It heightens awareness of a number of less-well-known acts and makes them sound relatively important… Mercury-nominated Sweet Billy Pilgrim being a case in point.


3/ As a celebration of British talent, it can still lay claim to being the credible alternative to The Brits. Plus, it’s televised, allowing a platform for acts you may not otherwise see on TV (oh, except for on Later…).

4/ It is not genre-bound. Although… [see below]

5/ It can genuinely fuel record sales. Plan B's Ill Manors (2012) sold an extra 43,000 copies after his nomination was announced.

6/ It is well-loved by the record industry and Guardian commissioning editors.


1/ The bloody name. Surely anything would be better than a relic of an extinct telephony concern?

2/ It’s faceless and the criteria are unclear. If it’s just about the likes and dislikes of the judges, why not unveil said judges, as they do for the Booker Prize?

3/ No jazz artists will ever win the award despite a jazz acts being nominated for the best part of the last decade. [See also: folk artists, and classical artists before they gave up nominating them in 2002.]


4/ It pays lip service to, or ignores completely, unfashionable genres such as hard rock and metal – indeed, anything gnarly, difficult, nasty or loud. In fact, the entire selection is almost always unfailingly ‘nice’: for polite company only.

5/ Is the idea of a British artist even relevant in the global pop arena of 2013 or a musty legacy of mid-’90s Cool Britannia boosterism?

6/ Is it about rewarding talent who could use the help or simply the best record? They claim that "the music on the album is the only thing taken into consideration", but is it? Big established acts with superior albums are often nominated but rarely win. Is it a level playing field for the Bowies, Vans, Pets, Johnny Marr et al, whose records have been every bit as good as those of this year’s young whippersnappers?

7/ Entrants have to pay a £200 fee to enter. Is that a worthwhile risk for artists operating below the industry radar?

8/ It doesn’t always help sales. Above and beyond the once-notorious “Curse Of The Mercurys” that appeared to derail Badly Drawn Boy (Mercury winner, 2000) how much value have winners such as Klaxons and Speech Debelle actually derived?


Apart from the suspicion that they could spare the fuss and give it to Laura Mvula right now, is there anything we’ve missed, pro or con? Are we wrong to be anything less than 100 per cent Mercury enthusiasts? Please put us right below.

Later… MOJO offer an office-picked home-grown dozen for last-minute consideration.