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(Credits: Far Out / Jazmin Quaynor)

Music | Opinion

The Big Topic: Is the Mercury Music Prize still relevant?

The Mercury Music Prize could once change careers overnight and pluck an artist from comparative obscurity and thrust them into the limelight. However, can it still create seismic cultural moments today? Or has it lost its relevancy?

Earlier this week, the list of nominees were announced by BBC 6 Music, and it was heartwarming to see Self Esteem and Yard Act celebrate their deserved moment in the sun. Both acts have dedicated their entire adult lives to musical ventures and are finally reaping the rewards of their effort. However, should the Mercury Music Prize be seen as anything more than a pat on the back for making a great album, or is it still a gateway from the underground to the mainstream?

The award was established by the British Phonographic Industry in 1992. The BPI are also the organisers behind the BRIT Awards, and they wanted a new awards ceremony to celebrate alternative acts that they ignored. However, the nominees aren’t spectacularly different this year, which does raise the question, what is the point of the Mercury Prize in 2022?

In fairness, it has shone a light on artists such as Scottish pianist Fergus McCreadie or Gwennor’s Tresor, an album sung almost entirely in Cornish. These albums won’t make the BBC Radio 1 daytime playlist anytime soon, and their nominations will undoubtedly help spread the word of their music to new ears, which should be the raison d’etre of the ceremony.

Mercury Prize 2022: The full list of nominees revealed

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The winner of the award will also undoubtedly see a boost in sales following the event, which is a cause for celebration. Last year, after her victory, Arlo Parks enjoyed her week-on-week sales showing an increase of 601.9%, which elevated Collapsed In Sunbeams to number 26 in the chart. Admittedly, this is still a much lower position than it initially achieved upon release.

In all likelihood, the people that made Parks’ album enjoy a second wind in the chart are the same fans who streamed the record when it was released in the first place, and her victory didn’t introduce her to a legion of followers that hadn’t previously heard her work.

In previous years, a victory at the Mercury’s has been a launching pad for artists such as Young Fathers, Benjamin Clementine, Speech Debelle and Elbow — albeit to differing levels of success.

There’s no reason why pop can’t have a place at the Mercury’s, as long as the album is full of artistic integrity. Eyebrows will be raised by many if Harry Styles takes home the prize for Harry’s House, but the inclusion of mainstream records is nothing new. Robbie Williams was nominated in 1998 for Life Thru A Lens, and Ed Sheeran is also a former nominee.

The Mercury Prize might not matter as much as it once did, but that’s the same for award ceremonies across the entertainment industries, and there’s no doubt that it’s still the most coveted award in British music.

Even if it’s no longer capable of elevating bands from toilet venues to arenas overnight as it did with Elbow, that’s never been the aim of the Mercury’s. The 12 selections are based solely on their artistic worth, and for one night only, streaming numbers and Instagram followers count for nothing, which gloriously means Yard Act will be treated as equals to Harry Styles.

Following her nomination, Self Esteem elatedly told the BBC: “You’re not meant to be like that about awards. You’re not supposed to care, but I cared about this one. So I’m free because I’m on it and I’ve won!” Her comments likely resonate with every artist nominated, and the Mercury’s is more than just another award show, but a true bucket list moment. 

The music industry is increasingly becoming dictated to by faceless algorithms and social media metrics, but thankfully, the Mercury Music Prize remains exclusively about the music. You may disagree with some of the nominees from a subjective standpoint; however, they are all listed on artistic merit, and for that reason, the Mercury’s need to be protected.