Mercury Prize – What Does It Do?

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Many congratulations to Alt- J on their Mercury music prize success, pipping more established artists to the revered industry accolade with their début album ‘An Awesome Wave’.

Such acknowledgement of their achievements, so early in their career, is surely to be a mind-blowing experience for the university formed group. However, aside from the personal sense of well being they will have every time they gaze upon their mantelpiece, what does winning the Mercury prize mean?

Additional sales seems to be the obvious answer. 2008 winners Elbow saw sales of ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ rocket 700% in the wake of their overdue win at the Mercury awards, while 2010 winners The XX found themselves pushed up festival bills and into sell-out arena shows with their songs becoming omnipresent in TV commercials too.

In an age where the industry is in a state of decline, it’s hard to be overly cynical about a platform that gives a much-needed boost to music sales, especially those of an exceptional quality. But it’s not always the case, as was seen in 2009 with shock winner Speech Debelle.

In part due to a record label distribution blunder, Speech Debelle’s album sold only 13,000 and since then her much mooted rise to stardom has all but vanished. Gorillaz famously turned a nomination down, referring to it being akin to “an albatross round the neck” and that has certainly been the case with other winners, as original Arctic Monkeys bass player Andy Nicholson left the band after feeling the pressure of winning the award. This pressure also mounted on 2007 winners The Klaxons, causing them to go into an identity-crisis meltdown, scrapping an entire album’s worth of material in favour of something they thought to be more in line with the fanbase they’d gained through their success; the end result a tired sounding attempt at pop.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In this instance, the phrase ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’ is one be appreciated. Nominations provide massive career boosts to what are know as the ‘token’ acts of the Mercury prize. This year its jazz act Roller Trio, who have received a much needed career boost, as sales for their album are up 618%. It’s for these acts that the Mercury Prize’s worth seems most evident, praising and bringing to mainstream attention music that would go unheard otherwise.

But, what is it’s effect on larger acts that are nominated? Ben Howard and The Maccabees have already been feeling the success of their albums prior to Mercury nomination, receiving modest sales increases of 9% and 7% respectively. Howard’s album in particular, ‘Every Kingdom’, was already the best selling album of the list, begging the question as to what the Mercury nomination means in a real sense here. The statement given on the official Mercury website is that its aim is to “celebrate recorded music of all genres by British or Irish acts“.

However, with many genres such as those associated with the electronic or club scenes being under represented, it seems to be the case that the Mercury’s “shortlist” is more a manifesto of what should be listened too; setting trends for the year ahead.

This aside, the Mercury Prize is still an important one in the music industry. While it’s scope may be limited; it still shines a light on those areas of music, which need it, whilst praising those (however unnecessary) purely for being outstanding in their fields.

So here’s to Alt-J and a bright future of albums bearing that coveted sticker. Check out their ‘Something Good’ below:


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