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Thursday, October 30, 2014

I didn't hear a single at the Mercury Music Prize

Went to the Mercury Music Prize last night. It's an enterprise dedicated to promoting the virtues of the long playing record, which is understandable. Inbetween the acts we were shown clips of DJs and musicians enthusing about their qualities as albums as if that would somehow convince us to set aside a portion of our time in forty-minute increments to listen to them.

I don't think there's ever been a time when there's been such a disconnect between the way the public listen to music and the way the record companies, broadcasters and tastemakers do the same thing. They have to be committed to the records, either because their pay cheque depends on them or they have to think of something to say or write about them. On the other hand we the public, now that we can listen free of the encumbrances of ownership, float across the surface of a limitless sea of music, occasionally finding one song we like and then playing it again and again and then, only then, dipping further into the album that it might have come from.

There's no longer any point in telling us to persevere, to finish our vegetables, to clean our plates before we're allowed to go out and play. That's a behaviour that belongs back in the days when you bought a record on the basis of a review and struggled with it until you convinced yourself that you liked it. That's gone. These professionals have to decide whether the new album by Royal Blood or Jungle is really good or not. Because they're forced to come to a conclusion they generally end up saying it's better than it is. We don't have to decide and so we don't. We just try it and move on.

There were some performances last night I enjoyed more than others, as is always the case, but here's the curious thing. It's now over twelve hours ago and I can't remember a single song any of them played. I've been going through the shortlisted albums on Spotify and even with that prompt I can't be sure I've found the songs that they played. The only exception is the one by Jungle, which I've heard a lot.

This is surely a big problem because in the end it's hit songs that make us listen to albums. We hear one tune we fall for and we go looking to see if there are any more where it came from.

I've written about this before but let's imagine that there had been a Mercury Music Prize in 1971 and the shortlist had been "Every Picture Tells A Story", "Hunky Dory", "Led Zeppelin 4", "Sticky Fingers", "Bless The Weather", "Ram", "Imagine", "Who's Next" and others. I don't have to remind you what the stand-out tracks were from those records because they stood out. It's always been that way and there's no getting away from it - memorable singles make memorable albums. Unmemorable singles just make up the numbers.