Tuesday, 5 November 2013

And The Winner Is...Popularity (Mercury Prize 2013 Reaction)


What a week, what a month, what a season eh? Another year, another publically-cheering yet introspectively-shameful display of financial meddling in creative freedom; musically unaffiliated private companies plastering their names across selected award ceremonies; hand-outs of cash prizes to shock winners that neither you nor the multitude of bookies had put their faith in. Yes, all such elements culminating into the grand gala of gallantry that is...the Polaris Music Prize. Yeh...see what I did there; thought I was referring to the Mercury Music Prize, didn't you? Of course yes, this article will focus on that and the amassed drivel of negative pointers that this year's ceremony has only added to. But what I wanted to open on was a quick pointer about Canada's own similarly equivocal award (which coincidentally was originally started as an off-shoot to the Mercury prize). 

While we here at MRD are unashamedly fond (and proud too given my split genetic herritage) of the Canadian music scene at present - or at the very most 95% of it - even our cross-Atlantic chums cannot escape the cruel and unwelcome clasp of corporate viewership and control. Taken place last month, this year's show, sponsored by Scion - a brand (not a physically objective, physically trading company) of Toyota Motor Corporation - gave light to the very nuisant pointlessness of non-musical companies sponsoring musical ceremonies. Had it not been for 2013's winners Godspeed You! Black Emperor (the Montreal collective being handed the award for their fantastic decade-long return in the shape of 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!) and their statement shortly after the news, I'd have a lot more to profess in this entry. For the time being though, I'll let Godspeed reflect the same views us lot on this tiny fraction of cyberspace share, which you can read in full right here.

With this I transition back towards home in a stomach-churning, and sadly, socially-targetted tone. And it's regarding the over-indulgent, upper conglomitary of celebration in the form of a ceremony-come-party-come-gathering of the elite few that the Mercury Music Prize has unfortunately turned into. To follow on from the point Godspeed raise, in the case of this country's ceremony, the idea of a major multi-national banking corporation sponsoring a musical event (or to be more specific, a subsidary of said company) not only brings to light the [music] industry's lack of a clue on how to progress the cultural and artistic importance of the artform, but also questions how cracked and fractured the moral ground is in the British Phonographic Industry as well as with the ceremony's organizers and voting 'panel'. Let's remind ourselves of the type of company whom possess the sponsorship rights to this event. A banking company whom only last year were found guilty of manipulating trade rates within its industry sectors. A global power whom despite having total assets of over $2 trillion, devised a network of overseas accounts in refusal to pay approximately £500m (roughly $800m) in tax - having attempted to block a leaking of details related to other tax benefit/avoidance schemes three years previous. And what is it that the company offers in return aside from a wad of cash? Tickets...something countless companiea around the World offer customers in what form of socially-connected or competition-based structure. This is neither unique nor beneficial to music's creators and consumers alike.

While I'm sure many fans would relish the opportunity (if not a guarantee) to receive free tickets to a music venue - in this case, not the award ceremony itself, but one of the exclusive concerts of the twelve 2013 nominee's taken place across the country - this is a luxury taken up a few of what is a five-figure strong capacity of tickets on sale and people investing their hard-earned money into music. Though I raise my arms to the ridiculousness of Barclaycard's level of contribution, I'm not at all closing myself off from the counter-argument that at least they're not taking up a large bulk of ticket sales (as is usually the case with, to raise a notable example, a sporting cup final a la the World Cup, the Superbowl, the Olympics etc.). What frustrates me however, is the visage of the Mercury Music Prize in its ceremonial event form as that of a grand hall fill to the brim with round tables, high-priced beverages, suits and faces only a select pocket of indivuals will recognize. The fact that the artists, the producers, the ers, the session instrumentalists are lost to the black-and-white three-piece formality of business executives, managers, CEOs and financial 'buddies', is not what a music vent needs. Yes the artists themselves get the opportunity on the red carpet to express their delight and shock at getting nominated, or better yet winning the whole thing, but to go down the road of glamourizing music into yet another celebrity-fabricated higher echelon of societal existence only empahsizes the problems we have with creative fields and the visages they express when comapred with regular, daily, working non-creative society. Without going off on a tangent here, music, as with film, TV, art and literature, should not be treated as an automatic ascension to a 'higher level' with ordinary human beings like you and I still placed at that regular, 'normal' base of the hierarchy.

For an award ceremony that gives out just one award - that isn't as extravagant as the Grammy's or as commercially tucked close towards as the BRITs (though even that is questionable), to see ceremonial tropes as red carpets, flashbulb-popping paparazzi, round tables and invite-only members of 'the industry' present, goes against what should be - both at its core and in its philosophy - a celebration of music and its creators. The only real consolation for those events mentioned is that those few [wise] artists who've attended have made their points be heard; more-so at the BRITs but there was that incredibly subtle speech given by Bon Iver at the Grammy's about the state of the industry (listen closely and you might just catch his sarcasm and disdain). So while Mercury go on about setting out 'to provide a snapshot of the year in music, to encourage debate and discussion about music, and to help introduce new albums...' the more we roll on through the year, the more this philosophy turns into nothing more than hubris. A year of music does not equate to 12 albums; the only discussion that ends up coming out of this ceremony is usually on the lines of 'x shouldn't have won...y deserved it more'...and worst of all, these albums - and more-so the artists - aren't new in the promotional, discussive manner of description. Non-charting ≠ new; undiscovered ≠ new. Not blown to excessive importance by radio and visual media alike ≠ new. 

So it's with that pointer that I finally lead in to what many of you I imagine will have initially been the driving reason for this publication of words and grammar. James Blake is the 2013 winner of the Mercury Music Prize with his sophomore album, Overgrown. Now it doesn't take long to announce this as (once more) a surprise announcement - as has been the case for the award over the course of its two-decade long existence - and more-so for you to know that this was not only one of my least-favoured choices, but also one to this day, I still find my head with numerous scratch-marks, over how the London artist achieved such highs...prior to his award. But this is not a disagreement purely on the fact that it's James Blake. I go back to Mercury's philosophy: 'the judging panel is made up of music experts from a variety of backgrounds,' it begins when detailing how an album is chosen as the winner, 'the panel usually includes musicians, music journalists, music presenters, music producers and composers. None of the judges can have an interest in the commercial success of any of the albums being discussed.' A powerful statement, and a questioning one too given that of the twelve 2013 judges (as revealed after the award show): one is the editor of NME; two are front-voices for programming; three are Heads of Music for radio stations (the majority of those listed being part of the BBC group) and most worryingly, only one member is an official musician.

While the validity that these individuals all reside within a music-orientated department or sector is suggested, for an award as important as Mercury - an award that time and time again, has been reinstated as the celebration of lesser-known musical creativity - the very statement of variety in background becomes questionable. For the judgng panel to comprise of not just someone related to the same radio station who regarded acts like Muse or Noel Gallagher to not fit the bill for radioplay, but also the editor of a major UK publication whom lies, more than likely, on the complete opposite of that spectrum in fully supporting [British] commercial rock music. But that's good, right? Getting professionals from either end together to better justify the decision; it increases the knowledge banks! Well again, the consequence turns - as it always does - back to the same old, unfortunate middle-ground that the ignored and the underappreciated unjustly fall into. And the problem is that while variety (in this case, the selection of individuals judging what exactly is the objectively best record of a twelve-strong pile) may help to speak up for a wider breadth of musical genres, the only records being considered-turn-chosen...are the popular ones. Regardless if the hidden bonus is that it's any good; to say James Blake did not have a mass of hype, popularity, achievment and respect behind him - even before his sophomore was released - would be to shun the man's privilliged position in the music industry. Would I have said the same thing should Foals have won? Probably not; the influence of commericial success and accessibility would have likely been a favourable influence, but unlike Overgrown, Holy Fire stands as a record built (from our end) of its own strengths rather than the expectation and established personality of the artist creating it. And despite how shallow or pretentious this last statement might come off as sounding, one has to take into account the fact that James Blake is a part of Polydor which in turn isowened by Universal Music Group.

My point is that the manner and reasoning for choosing James Blake as the winner of the 2013 Mercury Music Prize, or the lack of it, only invites more criticism than it does answer it. It's hard to simply lay down and accept this as a matter of independant choice or musical highlighting when the obviousness of Blake's popularity and short-term rise to media attention came not just within the space of one album (and it wasn't this one) but through a major label and heaps of press. Whether or not this has played into the award and has affected it remains to be seen, and the very fact that the panel have refused to shed light on their reasons for their choice only goes to increase the skepticism at an award that is no stranger to inducing frowns on many a face. Savages brought a unique raw energy into 2013 with their debut; Jon Hopkins chose subtlety and simplicity with his take on House-Techno fusion; Foals, as noted, took to fine-tuninge every unique aspect of alternative rock in a way that was melodic as it was harmonious. Hell, Arctic Monkeys made an improvement on what was a very disappointing 2011 album. But none of them have the iron-fisted dominance or financial security that major labels possess, and with that sadly, the challenge to shine brightest is always going to be a tough one. But more worryingly, the light is seemingly slowly being snuffed out in a media-run World interested with what's popular and telling us what to like, rather than letting us decide for ourselves. All in the name of 'alternatives' and 'independance'. And while the likes of James Blake can smile and pose for pictures with a mass-produced trophy in one hand and a cheque in the other - a testiment to his hard work - it goes without saying that even in a field branded as 'alternative' and 'different', the majority of musicians, artists and producers are left to fend for themselves in the dark of media-less ambiguity. The only ones that benefit are the labels and the sponsors - artists once more just the natural resource to run dry.
~Jordan Helm

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