The ‘token’ jazz, folk and avant garde nominees for the UK’s most prestigious music prize are the ones who stand to gain the most from it – but they are being ignored
The question posed most often, and most crabbily, in the history of the Mercury prize is: what’s the point of the “token” acts on the shortlist? Jazz, folk and classical nominees are only ever there to make the judges of the UK’s most prestigious music award look clever; they certainly never win.Talk to the acts themselves, however, and a different story emerges. “I don’t care if we’re called a token jazz act if we sell 3,000 more records,” says Shabaka Hutchings, whose jazz group, Sons of Kemet, are among the favourites to win. “And it might be a coincidence, but I’ve noticed things happening since we were nominated this year.” Their gigs are selling out more consistently and the band are getting better stages at events. They’re getting support they don’t get from the Mobos, Hutchings argues, as he has before, and don’t start him on the Brits. “That side of the industry doesn’t care. But this is like a little stamp: you are given a level of validation that reverberates. And if it sells more albums or tickets, it helps subsidise our music and push our scene as far as it can go.”
I was a Mercury prize judge between 2007 and 2012, and constantly defended “token” acts precisely for the reasons Hutchings outlines. But these arguments feel particularly relevant in 2018 because “token” acts are becoming scarce. Folk musicians haven’t been on the shortlist since 2012, a surprising state of affairs when acts such as Richard Dawson, Lankum and Stick in the Wheel (all of whom submitted their recent records for the prize) are revitalising the traditional scene. Classical and avant garde art music were once regular inclusions, but haven’t featured since Joanna MacGregor’s experimental Play in 2002. Metal has made only one appearance, if you count Therapy?’s Troublegum in 1994. Music by agenda-setting electronic artists, from Rustie or Actress to this year’s Bicep or Sophie, has missed out in recent years – only Jon Hopkins and Aphex Twin have been nominated in the past decade. [ . . . ]
In the past, Mercury has rightly given the top prize to drum’n’bass (Roni Size, 1997), the Asian underground (Talvin Singh, 1999), grime (Dizzee Rascal and Skepta, 2003 and 2016) and rap and hip-hop debuts (Ms Dynamite, 2002; Speech Debelle, 2009; Young Fathers, 2014). Jazz has also been regularly shortlisted, from Gwilym Simcock to Dinosaur and The Comet Is Coming, another band in which Hutchings plays. Curios such as C Duncan occasionally creep on. But the 2018 Mercury shortlist features seven Top 10 albums – including the Brits critics’ choice winner Jorja Smith – and six artists who have been nominated before. The safety net feels like it has got a little tighter.
“Music has to be more celebrity-driven these days. You see it on BBC and Sky – everything is driven up that pyramid,” says Sam Lee, whose self-released debut album, Ground of Its Own, was the last folk nomination, in 2012. Not that he is anti-Mercury at all. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me – I owe my entire career to it. It allowed me to instantly get to a level of performing affordable for a six-piece band, for starters – the costs of gigging in this country as a folk band are astronomical.” He also first met his publishers, BMG, at the ceremony and they have supported him ever since. “I would never have met them otherwise. When you’re outside the main industry, it’s so hard to come into contact with it.” However, he knows folk musicians who won’t submit their records for the prize: “They don’t feel invited into that world, so they’re not trying to force their way in. I was more naive – and I’m glad I was!” This is a huge part of the problem, in my experience: metal and avant garde records often weren’t even submitted in the first place.
Smaller bands also find the £190 entry fee prohibitive. “It was substantial for us,” says Nicola Kearey from Stick in the Wheel. She echoes Hutchings’ comments that attention breeds better fees and better record sales, meaning “we can continue to make our art”. But when major labels are charged the same as cash-strapped independents, the playing field isn’t level.
A look at the prize’s early years and the token acts included back then is instructive. The prize was established as an alternative to the Brits, says Trevor Dann, who was a judge from 1995 to 1997, “not to reward success, but to serve and promote the rising stars of British music culture. It was a tough time back then. People didn’t want the British music scene to be forgotten and overrun by the US.” The first shortlist in 1992 did include the Sheerans and Gallaghers of their day – Simply Red and U2 – but Jah Wobble, John Tavener, jazz artist Bheki Mseleku and the former Magazine bassist Barry Adamson lined up alongside them.
Adamson vividly remembers the “surreal delight” of going down Oxford Street in London on the bus and seeing the cover of his album, Soul Murder, in the window of HMV. “My album had tapes of prisoners screaming on it – it was experimental, outsider art, really – there next to Mick Hucknall! I loved how the Mercury was allowing people to discover new things that they wouldn’t have otherwise – that didn’t happen back then. But today it’s much easier, through technology, to discover albums yourself.”
But do people discover albums outside their comfort zones, given they direct their own online searches? Would they accidentally come across something such as Gavin Bryars’ re-recording of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet with Tom Waits, 1993’s highly avant garde classical nominee? Bryars didn’t quaff champagne at the ceremony with the eventual winners, Suede (he didn’t even attend), but his record got extensive TV coverage, which, along with regular plays on Classic FM, changed his life. “It made a big difference,” he says. “I was 50. It helped me to decide to quit being a professor of music at a university to focus on the dangerous life of being a professional musician. It gave me the push I needed.”
Bryars thinks classical music hasn’t made the shortlist in 16 years for practical reasons. “Contemporary composers, orchestral ones particularly, can’t afford to make CDs. I’m still in negative royalties from the Mercury-nominated album, and that sold well.” Several sources tell me that classical and folk labels also used to be approached by the Mercury committee, who encouraged them to enter albums. Several I contacted confirmed off the record that they haven’t been approached for years.
The twice-nominated folk musician Eliza Carthy (for Red Rice in 1998 and Anglicana in 2002) thinks that artists in “token” genres are thought of as operating happily outside the mainstream. “But most of us don’t want to be stuck in boxes. I was on a mission to bring English folk music to the masses, then having to deal with Jo Whiley on Radio 1 saying my album was irrelevant.” Her mother, Norma Waterson, became good friends with Jarvis Cocker after coming runner-up to Pulp in 1996 and Cocker subsequently became a big supporter of folk. Shabaka Hutchings also met Savages’ Jehnny Beth at the 2016 ceremony when he was nominated for The Comet Is Coming. She loved his playing and they have since recorded together. The potential for rich, cross-genre collaboration at the Mercury is high, and healthy for the British music industry.
Being in the company of bigger artists is transformative in other ways, too, says the twice-nominated artist Nick Mulvey (once for the jazz group Portico Quartet in 2008, once as a singer-songwriter in 2014). “We were shortlisted the same year as an album that was everything to us at that point – Radiohead’s In Rainbows – when we’d made ours with our student loans while eating crisps. Radiohead weren’t on the list in a bigger font size. That was surreal, but brilliant, for us.”
He became a judge in 2015 and thinks that the early stages of the judging process aren’t great for “token” artists. Before meeting, judges select their own 20-strong longlists from the 200-plus albums sent to them. These are turned into a single list of 25 for the group’s first debate. “That collective longlist actually weeds out personal enthusiasms,” Mulvey says. “If I’d had a chance to gush over a record I’d adored, I wonder if that would have made a difference.” The years in which a folk specialist has been on the panel seems to have affected the inclusion of folk acts, too. The Guardian writer Colin Irwin was there in the years of Norma Waterson, Kate Rusby and Seth Lakeman’s nominations and remembers being “quite shocked by the level of ignorance” of folk music, “including by radio producers”.