Mercury Prize. Scan through the 12 nominees and you will find not a single Scottish act for the first time in five years. The most tenuous link among the artists is that Geordie folk singer Rachel Unthank studied at Glasgow Uni for four years before leaving with an MA Hons degree in History/Theatre Studies.You have to delve a little deeper to discover Scotland’s influence in the 2008
However, the most important person involved in Tuesday’s ceremony is as good as Scottish in our eyes. Renowned critic, author and popular music sociologist SIMON FRITH has lived in Scotland for the past two decades, lecturing at Strathclyde University, the University of Stirling and, currently, Edinburgh University.
Englishman Frith has chaired the judges of the Mercury Prize since it began in 1992 and he gave The Pop Copan exclusive insight into what goes on behind closed doors…
How does the judging process work on the day of the ceremony?
The judges arrive at Grosvenor House hotel in London at 4pm, we go into a room and start talking about who should win. After a couple of hours we have reduced the 12 candidates to anything from four to 11 and we go downstairs to where everybody else has gathered and watch the live show. After that we’ve usually got an hour and a quarter to get it down to one.
Could the live performances influence the decision?
Yes, it could do and I have thought about that, given that we put a very heavy emphasis on the fact the prize is about a record and that the live show doesn’t necessarily include all the acts. People’s arguments will be enhanced or they’ll think of other things to say as a result of watching the live show.
Do most judges go in already knowing which album is their favourite?
Yes. It’s a funny process because it’s never going to be that all 12 people agree on the winner. They’ve got to try to persuade everybody else that the album they want to win should do. On the other hand they’ve got to take into account the fact that if they’re not going to win their argument they have to decide whose other argument convinces them.
What does your role involve?
My job as chair is to co-ordinate what can be quite a difficult conversation in such a way that I’m being fair to what everybody’s saying. I always want to make sure that whoever wins does so because people passionately thought it should. If people passionately feel strongly for a record then there are going to be a lot of people who equally feel passionately against it. It’s much better to have a winner which half the panel hates than have a winner that nobody minds very much. That’s why we’re always going to get flak. Because there is no voting system, if it came to the final second and something had to be decided then I would be the person to decide it. If we did have a formal vote and it was tied then I would have the casting vote.
What do the judges look for?
It’s not really about the best record, it’s about records of the year so there’s got to be some sense that the records chosen represent the year in music. They’ve got a representational function rather than a valuative function.
Does that explain why Roni Size/Reprazent’s New Forms beat Radiohead’s OK Computer in 1997?
There’s a big difference between putting things on a shortlist and how a winner is chosen. The winner has nothing to do with representational function. Roni Size didn’t win because they represented something, they won because on the night the judges decided that was the record they thought was the record of the year.
In hindsight, do you think a mistake was made?
No, because I look back and still think Roni Size’s record was a great record too. And I think Roni Size has a significant impact on the story of music in Britain – the whole set of sounds and approaches to music – which are just as significant as Radiohead’s. There were people on that panel who were tearing their hair out in exasperation that OK Computer didn’t win. I remember it well because it was so strongly felt. At the end of the day it hasn’t made much difference to Radiohead’s career.
Why was the ceremony not cancelled on September 11, 2001?
That was a very surreal year. The immediate feeling among the organisers was that it certainly should be cancelled, there was no way it should go on. But the police said that as far as they were concerned with security it was much easier for everything to go on rather than people arrive and have to be turned away. We were strongly advised that it should happen. From a judging point of view it may or may not have had an effect on how we thought about things. I think it was hardest for the bands who were playing that evening. It was ironic that PJ Harvey won as she was in Washington and could see the Pentagon had been attacked.
Do you think the online revolution and the way people consume music these days will affect the relevance of an album award like the Mercury Prize?
If you take music making, we’re constantly reading that because of the way the internet works, the iPod revolution and downloading in terms of individual tracks, that the album no longer really makes sense as a unit in which people listen to music and therefore the fact we have an album prize is increasingly going to become anomalous in that digital world. But making albums is how musicians see the world and how they conceive the musical space they want to occupy.
This prize is partly to do with promoting music and when it started, the notion was that you were getting records into shops and getting written about by newspapers and magazines. Now I think those are the areas that are much more affected by digital change. Retail stores seem completely out of touch with how music works. Magazines are much less significant in terms of where criticism is and where the interesting discussions are compared with online forums. In terms of where the prize is promoted, they now spend as much time in and see as much significance in getting various online services involved in sales or discussion than thinking about shops in the High Street and NME.
How do you feel about living in Scotland?
I’ve been here since 1987. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I first came up because I got a job here but it was only temporary so I used to travel up and down every weekend. After a few months I realised I got more miserable every time I travelled in the train going south and more happy as I travelled north, and I thought this told me something about where I wanted to live. Then I got married and had a family and they’re Scottish. If you’re living in places where there’s interesting music going on it doesn’t really matter where the industry is.