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.


  1. Amen. The record companies would like everything to be a single - and these days that boils down to Radio 2 singles or 6 Music singles. We, on the other hand, will vote with our feet and tell them if they're looking at an A-Side, a B-Side or a 'Ringo track'. And all too many new albums are riddled with the latter.

  2. Agree with all of the above. It also seems the shift in the way record buyers listen to and connect with music - seems to have shaped the way songs are being written by newer artists, which I guess it always has - from music hall to radio-friendly punch-through hits.

    But, now indie and breakthrough acts, if they're not borrowing from vintage riffs and records - are writing, ready-made stompers and crowd rousing choruses for festival goers - where you can picture sweeping camera pans across a rammed mass of sweating heads and bouncing bodies...

    To these ears though, the songs come across as plastic (as they used to say in the seventies) anthems. Generic and interchangeable - from Young Fathers to Mumford and Sons

  3. When is your book about 1971 coming out, David?

  4. The facetious answer is "when it's written". The publisher's answer is autumn 2015.

  5. I’ve just been conducting a scientific study of the scientific study that decided the Spice Girls “Wannabe” is the Catchiest Song Of All Time, or something equally scholarly. And with that in mind may I respectfully suggest that anyone thinking of writing and recording a song with a view to getting a hit should take note of Ashley Burgoyne.

    He is, apparently, a “computational musicologist from the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands” and seems to have had some involvement in the study.
    Anyway, he’s reported as saying (among other things) that “very strong melodic hooks seem to be the most memorable for people”.
    I’m merely a layman, but I think he may have hit on something here.

  6. Hang on a minute.

    David's saying he can remember virtually nothing from the Mercurys because nothing's memorable enough to be a bona fide single. That's followed by comments agreeing, yet bemoaning - to the general effect - that labels and bands are calibrating all their material to have the instant appeal of a single.

    Both propositions can be true, but surely the latter doesn't follow from the former?

  7. The thing about the Mercury Music Prize is that it doesn't really represent the best music released. In recent years it seems to be its own genre of "Mercury Prize music", a sort of middlebrow thing that's neither neither too populist nor too challenging. It seems to exist largely to sell records to people who don't actually listen to much new music but want to give the impression they're in touch with the contemporary music scene.

    Not that there's anything wrong with that, but the media promotes the Mercurys as something far more culturally significant than it really is.

    There is no shortage of thrilling and exciting stuff out there, but much of it comes from genres that are deliberately excluded (for example, hard rock and metal), or is from acts that aren't in their radar screen.