Jeff Smith on how the Mercury Prize is delivering in a pandemic year

Jeff Smith on how the Mercury Prize is delivering in a pandemic year

Jeff Smith has told Music Week that the music industry “definitely needs the Mercury Prize in the mix” this year.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to take its toll, the Prize arrives tonight (September 24) a little later than originally planned and in a context never seen before. Nevertheless, BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music head Smith, who has chaired the judging panel for the past three years, said the event is more important than ever.

He said there was never a discussion to pull the plug on an event that last year captured the imagination thanks to an action-packed show that saw Slowthai’s model of Boris Johnson’s head appear in various locations inside the Eventim Apollo.

Tonight’s big reveal is coming on BBC One’s flagship programme The One Show, in a TV first for the Prize. Already this week we’ve heard from Georgia, Warner Records president Phil Christie, Island’s Louis Bloom and Michael Kiwanuka’s manager Robert Swerdlow on what the Mercury means in 2020, and now it’s Smith’s turn to have his say.

Here, he talks anticipation, attention and the all-important judging process…

Have you felt the same buzz from around the business about the list this year?

“People are really excited about it this year. Without live music and the amount of stuff you usually see, consume and hear, it’s great to have some normality. The Mercury has been there for all these years and it’s always come up with the goods. Even in a pandemic, we’ve come up with a really strong list and I get the sense from the industry that people really appreciate that the judges and organisers went to a lot of trouble to make this as normal as it could be for people and to deliver it with the same amount of debate and conversation as any year, and that’s really good. It’s delivered in a time when it was really important, we definitely needed to have it in the mix.”

What should the shortlist do for the artists on it?

“There are artists on there who have sold hundreds of thousands of units and there are those who haven’t sold an awful lot. In the past, it’s always been a case of, ‘Blimey, we’re here to help you sell more records’ or things like that, but it’s also a Prize that is looked at by the world. I’d like to think the artists draw the world’s attention to the breadth of music from the UK and Ireland. It’s a list I’m very proud of that shows great range and it’s something that the world looks at.”


The Mercury has been there for all these years and it’s always come up with the goods

Jeff Smith


What’s the judging process been like this year?

“What we’ve got to bear in mind is that these albums, except one of them, weren’t actually recorded in lockdown, so you can’t say the music is reflective of it. But as we played the albums we could hear elements of it, you can retrofit your current place into the music, so it felt a little odd. And we couldn’t meet in our normal way, we’ve replicated it virtually, but it feels very ‘Mercurys in a pandemic…’”

Was the process as animated and heated as its renowned for being?

“Yes. It’s as intense as those virtual meetings can be, but there are limitations, I can’t pretend it’s exactly the same, it’s not. The great thing about our judges is that they can get their point across without actually being in the same room, they are very erudite, intelligent and smart people who can deliver exactly what they want to get across. I still felt the passion I would normally feel if we were face to face. We missed the usual things you miss on Zoom, the slight nuances, that’s the only thing, but I don’t think that really makes much difference.”

And what about the 11th hour meeting that happens on the night itself?

“You can be sure that there will still be that last minute thinking about who it’s going to be. I still don’t know, looking at that list, who the winner is, I really don’t. After chairing the panel for the last three years, I’m still never sure in that room who’s going to win. That’s still the case now. There’ll still be that excitement and speculation and we’ll be making the decision close to the bar again.”

Subscribers can read our full Mercury Prize feature – with contributions from Moses Boyd, Georgia and the teams behind Kano, Laura Marling, Charli XCX and Michael Kiwanuka – here.

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