The Mercury Prize launched in 1992 and its Album of the Year strapline have since accredited the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Portishead, PJ Harvey, Talvin Singh, Franz Ferdinand (let’s gloss over M People) – and now The xx – while enlivening overall record sales in the traditionally desolate summer period.
Although Irish artists are eligible for the UK-wide Mercury, Ireland also operates a home-grown album award, the Choice Music Prize. (Canada, France and Australia offer similar plaudits). Scotland, however, has no such official accolade – despite a thriving music industry and an abundance of worthy contenders.
Scottish blogger The Pop Cop raised the prospect of a “Scottish Mercury Prize” earlier this week in a post that was echoed by upcoming acts like The Phantom Band and The Scottish Enlightenment. Could a credible, independent Scottish “album of the year” award – say, a marketing, media and retail campaign that spotlighted 10 or so long-players – galvanise local artists, labels, promoters, record shops and music debate?
“I think it’s a great idea” says Stewart Henderson of Glasgow label Chemikal Underground. “It’d be an opportunity to take a high-profile step towards celebrating not just the nominated artists but the industry as a whole”. Henderson and his ex-bandmates The Delgados (themselves former Mercury nominees) founded Chemikal in 1994 and have since released game-changing Scottish albums by Mogwai, Arab Strap and The Phantom Band, among others.
Henderson, however, is careful to balance his enthusiasm with caveats – including the need to ensure a sense of merit as regards the people involved (judges, organisers and so on) and, critically, “avoiding the pitfalls and cynicism of the other big awards”. The Mercury, for example, has come under fire for its £195 entry fee – not to mention the thousands of pounds required by record labels for marketing contributions, album stock and a table at the ceremony, if their artist is shortlisted.
Kenny Anderson – aka King Creosote – runs Fife’s Fence Records (James Yorkston, KC, The Pictish Trail) and is circumspecttabout the very notion of awards for this reason. “I doubt we’d have the finance to provide the necessary music tracks, videos, table bookings and whatever else was required,” he cautions, envisaging a Mercury-style gala in Scotland.
WHAT about something more grassroots, campaign-led and independent-minded? “I see what you’re getting at, but then it’d be preaching to the converted, no?” He has a point.
Anderson is also wary of the latent parochialism in home-grown back-slapping. “I doubt a Scottish music award would exist outwith the usual suspects, and then it would be regarded as a bit of a joke south of the border,” he ventures. It’s worth pointing out that King Creosote received the prestigious Singer-Songwriter distinction at last year’s Nordoff Robbins Tartan Clefs – a charity music awards show billed as “Scotland’s favourite Black Tie event”. He has thus witnessed first-hand the sales spike (or lack thereof) that can accompany some industry accolades.
Teenage Fanclub’s Francis Macdonald, meanwhile – who also works with Camera Obscura, the Vaselines, Karine Polwart and others in his various roles as musician, producer, manager and label boss – has entered artists for the Mercury in the past, and acknowledges its sales and marketing potential. “I think all prizes – Mercury, Booker, Turner – are inherently a wee bit silly,” he admits, “but ‘the angle’ is so often what sells a group, over and above the music. If the angle is that an album is Mercury-nominated then I guess you use that to try and make an impact.” Macdonald believes that our artists could benefit from a comparable, authentic domestic spotlight. “A Scottish awards ceremony would create publicity, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Stewart Henderson agrees. “If the nominations were given to credible, deserving artists – if we could secure the backing and support of the Scottish media, and if we could have Scottish music retail rally behind it – then I think we could have an award to be proud of. One that would celebrate the talent we’ve consistently produced for years.”
Henderson sits on the board of the Scottish Music Industry Association, along with Stuart Braithwaite from Rock Action / Mogwai. One might be inclined to suspect that SMIA has something up its sleeve.