Sometimes the result feels obvious. Arlo Parks, the bookies’ favourite, was always going to win the Mercury Prize for the best British and Irish album of the year. This is not, in my view, because Collapsed in Sunbeams is the most worthy album musically. Each of the shortlisted records could have made a claim in this respect. Instead, it is because the prize tends to be awarded to artists who capture the zeitgeist. Parks typifies 2021 in a way that escapes the other nominees.
Outlining their decision at the award ceremony last night, the judges commended “just how much she represents a generation of people and talks about themes that are so timely to now”. Collapsed in Sunbeams provides succour for our pandemic lives. Announcing the award at the ceremony, DJ Annie Mac stated: “We need Arlo Parks’ music: it’s healing, it’s comforting, it’s uplifting.”
It would be going too far to suggest that artists create albums with the Mercury Prize in mind, but the award does form part of promotional strategies. Above all else, it is regarded as providing a sales boost. Unlike the Booker Prize for fiction, with which it is often compared, this boost forms part of the media coverage. The shortlisting of Collapsed in Sunbeams resulted in a sales increase of 16.7%. Another of the nominees, Laura Mvula’s Pink Noise, witnessed a 50% rise.
Yet there is a tension in this prize. It attempts to capture the pulse of the nation, but in many ways the long-playing record is a thing of the past.
No one listens to albums
Some commentators believe that albums reached their peak as an art-form half a century ago. In the current century, this format can be viewed as irrelevent.
Rather than listening to the whole of albums, consumers are now more likely to stream individual tracks. In 2019, the British research company MIDiA found that just 16% of consumers listened to physical albums, and only 10% listened to albums in full on streaming services. The preference, instead, is the algorithms of playlists.
Artists have responded in kind. Some, such as Calvin Harris, no longer make albums. There is divergence between singles and albums acts. Statistically, singles can be viewed as being more representative of the public. This week’s number one, Bad Habits by Ed Sheeran, has been streamed over 400 million times on Spotify alone. In contrast, prior to last night’s award, Collapsed in Sunbeams had just 43,311 UK sales.
The record business still clings to the idea of the album, nonetheless. The Mercury Prize is organised by the UK’s trade body, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI). Rather than accept the dominance of streaming, the recording industry converts its activity into “album equivalent sales”.
Figures are reported on the basis that 1,000 streams across all tracks of an album is equal to the sale of one physical album. Music business analyst Tim Ingham has described this formula as “self-evident lunacy”.
It is based on the notion that the two tallies will generate similar royalties. This is economically false. The calculation has been in place for ten years, a period in which the average per-stream pay rate has halved, while the average price of a physical album has increased. In addition, it provides a false equivalence across different methods of consumption. In reaching the 1,000 streams total, there is no need for listeners to experience the music as an album. The figures are instead compiled from their atomised activities.
The Mercury Prize has been in existence since 1992. Ostensibly, its 30 winners have fulfilled the same function: they have captured the spirit of the times to create the best album of the year.
Since the turn to online services, however, the award has undertaken an additional role. It is upholding the idea of the album in the face of technological change. Even the televised event is structured like a record. There are 12 shortlisted nominees, matching the average number of tracks on album. They perform their hit tracks in turn, mirroring the pattern of a compilation LP.
This might feel anachronistic, but it is a worthwhile task. Many artists do still think in terms of collections of songs. The album continues to provide a great resource with which to outline a musical vision. The prize also does an effective of job of introducing audiences to these albums and increasing their “sales”. And really, would any of us prefer a Mercury Prize for the playlist of the year rather than album?
Richard Osborne does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.