# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Miscellaneous - October 2013

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 3 / 10 / 2013

Miscellaneous - October 2013


Ben Howarth in 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' asks the announcement of this year's Mercury Music Prize nominees there are no folk, jazz or classical albums on the list

I'm used to letting out a weary sign after the Mercury Music Prize nominees are announced each year. But this year's list seems especially uninspiring. Normally, at least one name pops out – someone new or someone nobody expected to be nominated. This year's list was full of albums I already knew about, and – for the most part – I'd already decided I wasn't interested. The sheer boredom of the list meant it took me longer than I should have done to notice the real problem with the list - “Where are the token jazz and folk albums?” The anonymous Mercury judges tended to pat the head of one folk album and one jazz album each year. But not this year. This being the Mercury Music Prize, no explanation has been given (as was the case in 2001 and 2004 when jazz and folk went similarly unrewarded). Perhaps chief judge Simon Frith just changed the rule on a whim. It would be no more strange than giving the 2009 winner's cheque to Speech Dabelle. It is not true to say that the Mercury Prize has always acknowledged folk. Jazz and classical were included from day one, but folk was not included until the prize's fifth birthday, when Norma Waterson was nominated. This was not enough to establish the 'token folkie' tradition for 1997, but in 1998, the judges gave Waterson's daughter Eliza Carthy the first of her two nominations. A tradition was born, and nominations soon followed for Kate Rusby and Kathryn Williams. It has never been properly explained why classical music disappeared from the list in 2002, though the increased attention span devoted to the classical Brits (conveniently hosted by former pop star Myleene Klass wearing a 'minimalist' dress) might have something to do with it. Presumably labels releasing classical albums stopped paying the fee required for a nomination. Let's face it! Few pop fans would be tempted to buy a modern classical album, even one nominated for the Mercury Prize. Aside from a few free bottles of chilled wine on the night itself, what did any classical musician have to gain from entering? Their inclusion did little more than highlight the absurdity of the awards. Are the achievements of Joanna MacGregor OBE, a concert pianist, conductor and for ten years the director of the Bath International Festival of Music really in any way comparable to those of Ms Dynamite? Perhaps the sheer misery of listening to “Miss Dynamitee-ee” - twice in one evening – when she beat MacGregor to the prize in 2002 was the straw that finally broke the camel's back for the modern-classical music industry. The same is not quite true of folk music. Plenty of artists skate a fine line between folk, rock and pop. Indeed, two albums nominated this year have been described as folk in the media – Laura Marling and Villagers. I would describe both as singer-songwriters, rather than traditional folk musicians, but it would not be an especially daring leap-of-faith for a Laura Marling fan to listen to, say, Eliza Carthy. For the purposes of this piece, then, can we take it as a given that there is a distinction – however artificial – between an act who writes folk-style music, but whose background is in indie-rock and one who is recognisably a part of the traditional folk scene. It was always a given that the 'token folkie' was never going to win – rightly infuriating many fans of the genre. And yet, a Mercury nomination could kickstart interest in an artist who would otherwise have no hope of getting so much attention. Kathryn Williams released her first album with a budget of £80 in 1999, but a surprise Mercury nomination earned her a licensing deal with a major label. If not the reason for her success, it certainly did her no harm. Five years later, Seth Lakeman (already a revered figure in the folk scene as part of the Lakeman Brothers) secured a deal with a major label on the back of a nomination for his first solo record, an album that cost him just £400 to record. This attention has a knock-on effect. More attention for these now high-profile acts means larger audiences, which means more attention for support acts and better attended festivals. That said, it is really the Mercury Prize that needs folk artists, not the other way around. Albums that could have been nominated include Bellowhead's chart bothering 'Broadside' – an album of deliciously catchy songs about collier lads mixed with sea shanty's; Lau's 'Race the Loser', a collection of improvised instrumentals that skirts between traditional folk and free jazz; Chris Wood's 'None the Wiser', nine world weary post-recession laments or Blue Rose Code's 'North Ten', a heartbreaking/heartwarming tale of redemption from a recovering alcoholic. All those albums would have been worthy of a nomination – in an ideal world, the judges would have abandoned the 'token folk' category and included more than one. Only the most cloth-eared person would rather listen to Foals. I won't be watching this year's ceremony. Nor should you.

Also In Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll

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