The Hyundai Mercury Prize has revealed its 12 nominees for 2021 and is set for a full ceremony next month, following the easing of Covid restrictions.
The album of the year prize ceremony returns to the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith on September 9.
The only obvious beneficiaries in the first full chart week following the nominations are former winners Wolf Alice, whose Blue Weekend (Dirty Hit) had a 38.5% week-on-week sales increase as the album moved from No.77 to No.39. The band have so far amassed 55,787 sales for their third album, according to the Official Charts Company.
In the streaming era, the immediate impact on sales from Mercury may be less apparent than in previous years, but it remains an important opportunity to raise the profile of an artist and their album. Former winner Dave, whose LP Psychodrama triumphed in 2019, has just posted the biggest weekly sale of the year so far with the follow-up album, We’re All Alone In This Together.
With the album award now in its 30th year, BPI chief executive Geoff Taylor looks at how it can still deliver as a major platform for artists...
In light of the ongoing pandemic, do you feel confident about staging the ceremony next month?
“I would say confident is probably too strong! We all have to be adaptable, and so we have contingency plans in place. We’re optimistic that we can have an event as we normally would with a full audience. Obviously, we are prepared for things to change. We certainly want to deliver as much of a Mercury experience as we possibly can for the artists and for the audience. So that's what we're planning on, and it's hopefully going to be an amazing show.”
Are there lessons from last year, when you had to adapt to the pandemic restrictions?
“The big step forward last year was in terms of the TV coverage. We have always had amazing coverage on radio and particularly 6 Music, as well as Radio 1 and 1Xtra. We saw that as usual last year, but what was new was the coverage on The One Show and BBC Two. So we're obviously keen to make sure that the artists are in front of as many viewers as possible for their performances, and that we get as much news coverage as we can. So that's a continuing discussion with the BBC. Our focus is on giving the artists as powerful a platform as we can for them to promote their music and to celebrate what they have achieved.”
There are four debuts as well as a mixtape and one-off collaboration - does that show that the prize is doing its job?
“I think so. It’s an important element of music discovery. What I love about the Mercury is that it’s a great equaliser. So even artists who are yet to achieve large-scale success can compete with the biggest artists in the country and in the world, because it's only about the music. What this list shows is that the Mercury is about giving time to music, it’s an antidote to disposable culture; this is music to live with, it’s music to lose yourself in. With the lockdowns that we've been through, perhaps people have been willing to spend a little bit more time with music, and that's reflected in the nature of music that’s on the list. The Mercurys list, unapologetically, makes some demands of listeners by challenging them to listen to things that they otherwise might not. And I think what this list shows is that there's real innovation in British recorded music. Whilst a lot of life has changed, what we've seen is artists directing their energies towards creativity in the studio. That really comes through on this list.”
These are albums that make you think, albums that will make you dance or cry
The independent sector makes up the majority of this list...
“The independents are able to focus in every corner of music, looking for talent. And a lot of new talent obviously bubbles up through the independent sector. That's why the Mercury Prize is particularly important to the sector. But again, what is special about the Mercury Prize is it really doesn't matter whether you're signed to a major, indie or self-releasing artist, you have an equal shot at a Mercury nomination and that's why it's special. What we focus on with the Mercury is really the pinnacle of accomplishment in the art of music, regardless of genre, regardless of commercial success. These are albums that make you think, albums that will make you dance or cry. And that's what the Mercury is all about, the art of music.”
Is it important to have some big artists on the list, too?
“I think it is. Obviously, it's cyclical, sometimes you have a record which is commercially successful like Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia last year, but which is also critically acclaimed. Sometimes you have those enormous records, and sometimes you don't. But what the judges are looking for is accomplishment in the art of music, and it's going to vary year by year in terms of the profile of the artists that achieve that. So it depends very much on the release schedule, but there's a fantastic, diverse list of artists here. A lot of first-time nominees, as well as artists like Wolf Alice and Laura Mvula who have had every album they've released nominated.”
The prize is approaching its 30th anniversary. Are you thinking about how to refresh it?
“A lot of that is about our partnerships. We've been very fortunate, having partners like Hyundai and the BBC, who have helped us promote the prize very broadly. We're always thinking about how we can take the next step in that regard. But we want to stay true to the core values of the prize, which is it's an art prize. I was proud of the selection of judges that we have this year - we have Michael Kiwanuka, for example, on the judging panel. So we have very high-profile, successful artists with a Mercury history, alongside the leading critics in the country. This is the best group of people that one could have to judge an arts prize.
“So we will stay true to that core vision that is all about excellence in music, while trying to expand its commercial impact to ensure that it gives artists as much of a push as possible and that it creates debate. I think the prize absolutely does that and, at the BPI, we're tremendously committed to making it as strong a platform as possible.”
Click here for Music Week’s lowdown on this year’s Mercury Prize nominees.