The decision to award Alt-J this year’s Mercury Music Prize tells us two things. First, it has been a below-average year for British music. And second, the criteria for the prize are changing.

The Mercury is traditionally difficult to call, with bookmakers chopping and changing the odds right up to the last minute. This year was no different, but for the underwhelming reason that, if truth be told, none of the albums on the shortlist was deserving of the accolade.  Even the judging panel would probably agree that Alt-J were among the best of a distinctly mediocre bunch, endorsed by the fact that half of the nominated artists seemed bemused to have even received an invitation.

There were some solid contenders of course. Richard Hawley’s Standing On the Sky’s Edge would have been worth a nomination in most years, Jessie Ware’s Devotion is a decent collection of songs and the Field Music record has some appealing moments. As for the winner, Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave looks destined to be over-appreciated in the same way The xx’s debut has been over the past three years. The album takes some interesting sounds and quirky vocal melodies and has a go at making them into a few songs, but it’s more a naive adventure than album of the year.

The more important conclusion to be drawn from this year’s outcome however, is in relation to the Mercury Prize itself. What is its relevance in 2012?

The first thing to make clear here is that I am a huge fan of the prize in principle. The award was initiated in the early 90s to offer support to UK artists starved of commercial exposure as the main national radio stations became narrower in their appeal. Artists as varied as Badly Drawn Boy, Antony and the Johnsons and Dizzee Rascal have benefited from the Mercury over the years and the autumnal ceremony has become a regular fixture in the British musical calendar.

In recent years though, as the Prize itself has become more acclaimed, there has been a growing tendency for it to be awarded to artists fitting a particular mould. In the mid 00s, three indie bands won the Prize in four years, which prompted criticism from urban music fans and appeared to set in motion a process of keeping all camps happy – the Prize was subsequently spread around artists of different styles.

The most notable of these was Speech Debelle’s surprise victory in 2009 for Speech Therapy. Ironically, in trying to appease a section of their audience the Mercury panel seem to have inadvertently started another formulaic process. The commercial flop of the Speech Debelle album, even after winning the Prize (when album sales historically go through the roof), seemed to threaten the Mercury’s power to promote new music. Since that year, the award has been pinned to the artist which is, not necessarily the most commercially successful, but which has the most potential to become commercially successful.

The xx’s victory in 2010 was the prime example of this – the album was plugged left, right and centre in the year following its success, popping up on all manner of locations from dinner party playlists to teenage sex-mixes. The Alt-J album is very much in the same ilk, with the same light danceable grooves and the same ageless crossover appeal.

It would appear then, that the Mercury Prize is increasingly being rented out to artists who serve up a relatively conventional album with a broad appeal which the industry can repeatedly plug as its flagship record, without offending anybody or polarising opinion. Should this trend of targeting artists with a potentially strong marketability continue in the future, it could prove damaging to the credibility of the Prize and the artists of real quality it seeks to promote.

Jack Dixon

Jack is listening to Kendrick Lamar – ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’

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