The first star to top the bill at Troxy was a box office king (King Kong, actually), so it was fitting that – on the eve of its 85th anniversary – the venue again showcased one of the biggest ticket ...
This week, the 27th winner of the Mercury Prize will be announced. But what does recognition from the judges really mean for the artists shortlisted, and how does the industry view the award? Music Week quizzes four of this year’s chosen 12 to find out…
WOLF ALICEVisions Of A Life (Dirty Hit)Peak Chart Position: No.2SALES: 57,214 (OCC)
A second consecutive Mercury nod for a rock band pushing boundaries…
STEPHEN TAVERNER, founder, East City Management:
“Just being shortlisted is an exciting prospect for any artist and the prize comes with a fair amount of kudos. I haven’t heard anything about the Mercury losing impact, and my personal take on that is that if the winner is commercially viable in the global market then it’ll travel a long way.
“We sold out O2 Academy Brixton in a day and it looks like the second date will sell out pretty quickly as well. Has the Mercury had any impact? Maybe. I don’t think you can underestimate it. Obviously it gets talked about in the media, but people definitely want to check out the [shortlisted] albums and then make their own decision. You hope that people, who maybe haven’t heard the album, see an ad somewhere and check it out and that it resonates enough for them to tell their friends about it.
“Stats are important from an industry point of view, but if you’re a music fan and you’re faced with the streaming services search button every day, it helps as a filter.
“What does the industry think? When they’re on the shortlist, they love it, when they’re not, they diss it, it’s as simple as that. We’re a competitive bunch! The randomness of it probably gets people talking. But people talking about music is a good thing, I’d rather people were arguing with each other than being very blasé and skipping tracks on a playlist. Engaging with an audience about music is very important and skipping tracks is not so great and could be damaging in the long term, it makes things too disposable.
“I always hope to have something on the shortlist. Everyone involved is very genuine about the music, it’s a fantastic thing and we need it. The world needs it.”
SONS OF KEMET Your Queen Is A Reptile (Naim Jazz) Peak Chart Position: N/A SALES: 3,302
A vigorous, provocative jazz odyssey built to commemorate powerful women…
RACHEL MILLAR, manager:
“We’d been so busy that we hadn’t appreciated it was time for the announcement. We were all out in Martinique in the Caribbean for a show, so the timing was amazing. There are definitely worse places to celebrate.
“I think the Mercury has changed over the years, it was definitely a nod to the underground scene and there has always been a ‘token’ jazz nomination historically, but it still means a lot because it’s voted for by professionals. To be recognised is a huge honour.
“The ‘token’ jazz tag is a little annoying. When we found out we were shortlisted before the full list was announced, we discussed the idea that there would be another jazz artist on there and that Sons Of Kemet wouldn’t be the ‘token’ one because of the reach they’ve had, the exposure and the success. It didn’t feel like we would fit in that traditional category. But there wasn’t another jazz nomination. It definitely is treated as a token thing rather than a serious nomination in the wider world unfortunately, so it is frustrating. There needs to be more integration, so jazz isn’t standing alone by itself.
“There are a lot of more successful mainstream artists that are signed to major labels [nowadays] and it’s not as underground as it used to be, but the Mercury still has an impact. It has a reputation of picking the right winner, too.
“This album captures the essence of their live performance and the entire message around the record – the fact that the tracks are named after overlooked but incredibly powerful black women, the title – it’s making people question what’s happening in our society.
“It feels like the right time for Sons Of Kemet. There’s momentum for the entire UK jazz scene, it’s going to help raise everyone up. It feels like we’re on the brink of this scene really breaking in the same way as when Dizzee Rascal won. People are definitely going to pay more attention, it’s going to have a real impact.”
NOVELIST Novelist Guy (Mmmyeh) Peak Chart Position: N/A SALES: 1,031
A candid, self-made portrayal of the inner-city condition from the DIY South London rapper…
NOVELIST (Kojo Kankam):
“My mum [and manager] shouted when we found out. It’s completely amazing for me, man. I’m not one of the highest profile musicians out there and it’s really a testimony that people like the music and the quality of it. I’m actually very happy that it’s considered great art, that’s the main thing for me.
“I’ve been hearing about the award for years. When you hear about it, you just think, ‘Oh yeah, that’s massive!’ To be involved in it now is kind of funny.
“The thing with the Mercury is that it has such a great following and it’s very highly esteemed, so there have been people getting in contact that just want to get involved. They’ve heard the music because of this opportunity.
“The legacy speaks for itself. It’s not easy to become someone who’s in a position where they can just receive a Mercury award like that. I feel very privileged and happy that I’m involved. It’s one of those awards that’s legendary, so to be amongst legends and be remembered for being a part of something like this, that’s good. It’s hard to put into words. I like to stay humble, but it’s big!
“I’ve come up doing everything very DIY, which isn’t easy. I’m still DIY in what I do, but there’s a wider reach of people who are interested and I’m sure that this will spark some new business opportunities.
“I’m a businessman so I’ve always got to consider opportunities, but I’ve never aspired to do what I can’t do. I believe all things are possible, but I’m not forcing anything. Making great music is a good start, what comes from that comes from that. Hopefully that will gain some more attention, if it ends up in the charts then it ends up in the charts. If it doesn’t, I still made the music I wanted to.”
NADINE SHAH Holiday Destination (1965 Records) Peak Chart Position: No.71 SALES: 6,915
Indie success story strikes gold with a coruscating, political third album…
ROS EARLS, founder 140db Management:
“There are very few female artists as bold as Nadine, she’s made a real statement record. She’s got a very clear message and it’s come at a really good time. It was inspired by heartbreaking footage of refugees on beaches, and sadly most of the things she wrote about are still relevant, things have got worse if anything.
“There aren’t many people talking about politics the way she is, melodically, inventively and when you see her perform she’s got an incredible sense of humour. It’s palatable, it’s not preachy but it is a statement, a political record.
“We’ve had an uplift in sales and streaming and key pieces of press. We’re chuffed to bits but looking at what’s going out there she’s been ploughing her own furrow for 10 years now. This is her third album and people are only just finding out about her, which is a real statement about our industry, to develop a career you’ve got to spend all that time under the radar. We paid for the first two records ourselves. The Mercury has done us a great service that has consolidated our position, a proper underlining of where we’re at.
“The Mercury used to be about giving a voice to the underdog, people who weren’t necessarily on the commercial end of the business, to support people making music that was outstanding, original and different. I look at the other nominees and I’m questioning the reasoning, but I can’t help but say we’re thrilled to bits.
“It would be amazing to win, but it feels celebratory to be nominated. It’s such a wild vote, who knows? If they choose to give it to somebody who’s already a multi-millionaire then that’s fine.
“To have a Noel Gallagher and a Lily Allen in the pot is tough. I always thought it was an award where there was somewhere to go for the underdog, some way of connecting to the wider world. I think Nadine is a prime candidate but that’s in my world. Lots of people deserve to be supported by it.”
Del Boy’s three-wheel van in Only Fools & Horses bore the slogan, ‘New York-Paris-Peckham’ – and one date on Britney Spears’ 2018 Piece Of Me world tour similarly stood out like a sore thumb.
For Peckham, read Scarborough – the seaside resort became something of a punchline in the run-up to hosting the pop icon on August 17, but generated an estimated £5 million in PR value for the region.
And far from a one-off, such occasions are fast becoming the norm. The North Yorkshire town has welcomed Lionel Richie, Gary Barlow, Stereophonics, Noel Gallagher, Bastille, Emeli Sandé, James Arthur, Pete Tong, The Script, Texas, James, Steps and Nile Rodgers & Chic in 2018 alone.
The backbone of its new-found pulling power is the town’s revitalised Open Air Theatre, Europe’s largest, at 8,100-capacity. Built in 1923, the venue closed in 1986 before a £3.5 million renovation led to its reopening (by the Queen!) in 2010. And after a mixed first few years it has hit its stride under the guidance of promoter Cuffe & Taylor, which has run the theatre on behalf of the local council since 2016.
“This year has been an incredible success,” beams director Peter Taylor. “Certainly, Britney has helped us capture the imagination, but I don’t think enough credit has been given to all the other wonderful acts we’ve had this year. The conversation has changed from ‘Why Scarborough?’ to ‘Why not Scarborough?’”
Dubbed “the Hollywood Bowl of Yorkshire” (with tongue ever so slightly in cheek), the venue hosted sold-out gigs by Elton John, Olly Murs and Jose Carreras & Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, but struggled to attract full houses on a regular basis until Cuffe & Taylor arrived on the scene. “We hired the venue for a Tom Jones concert in 2014 and got talking to the council,” recalls Taylor. “They said, ‘We love the theatre but we would like someone to come in and take it over,’ so that’s how the conversation started.
“The venue was doing OK, but the council could only take a limited amount of risk and it was a case of needing to speculate to accumulate. It was a bit of a no-brainer for them when we came along and said, ‘We’ll take the risk if you give us a good deal on the venue.’
“When we put on a gig in a field or a stately home we have to bring everything in ourselves. But in this case things like the toilets, the box office and the seating were already there, ready to go, so that made it interesting to us.”
The arrangement has been of mutual benefit. More than 75,000 people attended concerts at the theatre in 2017 – a 50% rise on 2016, while this summer saw the attendance record smashed for a third year in a row, with over 82,000 tickets snapped up before the first show had even taken place. Total sales topped 90,000.
“The perception was that it was a small town and there was a limit to what it could get, but we’ve tried to raise expectations and the ability to secure international acts,” notes Taylor. “Our aspirations were bigger because we were able to take more risk and that has paid off. We’re trying to make it a stop on everybody’s tour: If you’re touring May to September, come to Scarborough.”
Little Mix, Bryan Adams, Jess Glynne, Simply Red, The Beach Boys, The Charlatans, Status Quo, Michael Ball & Alfie Boe, Kaiser Chiefs, Cliff Richard and Madness have all been enticed to Scarborough by Cuffe & Taylor in prior years. On average, around 60% of gig-goers are local and, with the town’s population a modest 61,000, attracting punters from outside the area is crucial.
“It’s a tourist destination and we want to be able to make the theatre part of the town’s prosperity,” says Taylor. “We get a lot of support from the locals but equally we need to attract people from outside the area to keep it vibrant and keep ticket prices at a level where we can keep attracting the real top drawer artists.”
Crucially, the promoters were able to up the theatre’s capacity from 6,500 to in excess of 8,000 with the installation of a standing area, which covered a picturesque but obstructive lake in front of the stage.
“We used a temporary solution for two years before the council said, ‘We’ll cover it over and you can pay us back over a number of years,’ so that’s what we’ve done,” says Taylor. “That has allowed us to sell more tickets and reduce our ongoing costs, so we can be more competitive when looking for artists. It has also allowed fans and artists to be closer to each other, creating a better experience for both.
“It makes it much more versatile – we’re like an arena now – with a standing floor and a seated bowl. At the moment it’s 8,100 [capacity] and I’d like to get up to 9,000 on certain gigs, we just need to do a little bit of work to be able to make it happen.”
Taylor and business partner Daniel Cuffe became part of Live Nation in 2017 when the promoting giant acquired a controlling interest in Cuffe & Taylor, and are already reaping the rewards.
“I’m not sure how successful we would’ve been in securing the Britney Spears tour if we weren’t part of Live Nation,” ponders Taylor. “We can also offer Live Nation that ‘Brucie Bonus’ midweek date to make a tour routing work. We can say, ‘Come and give us a show in Scarborough.’ It’s great when you’re routing a tour to have somewhere in midweek that you definitely know is going to sell out.”
Scarborough has also proved a useful bargaining chip when it comes to Cuffe & Taylor’s Lytham Festival and Greenwich Music Time events, which utilise many of the same acts. “Scarborough helps Lytham and Greenwich more than Lytham and Greenwich help Scarborough,” he explains. “Scarborough’s flexible because it’s sat there all summer so we can also offer a show in addition to an arena run, which is what we did with Britney. That has opened up a whole new avenue of possibilities for the venue.”
Cuffe & Taylor has a licence to run up to 20 events at the Open Air Theatre per annum and expects to make its first announcements for 2019 in November.
Setting such a high bar brings its own challenges, of course, but Taylor reflects: “I don’t think it’s a matter of topping it, but to keep the venue evolving. There is only one Britney Spears so we’re not going to try and emulate that, we’re going to try and do something different. I’d like to do things a bit more off the beaten track, such as metal and dance. I’d like to keep the surprises coming because that’s what captures people’s imagination.”
He adds: “We are unique. It is Europe’s largest open air theatre and in the long-term we’re trying to position it as one of the premier outdoor venues in the UK.”
This time next year, eh Rodders?