Mercury Music Prize - sing when you're winning

As the Mercury Music Prize shortlist is revealed, Chris Mugan questions the value of such awards
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The Independent Culture

Perhaps the toughest choice for an award-winner is who to thank. For a jury-based prize like the Mercury, you have a clearly defined group to nod to, while with popular votes victors can bow to fans who took time to email, text or phone. Beyond that, you have the decision of how far to include family, mentors and the people behind Pro Tools who allow you sing in tune.

Yet should winners be grateful at all? For anyone who sees pop success as a means to earn more from appearances in celeb magazines, then a few gongs around the palaces we see in photoshoots do no harm. For artists who seek to maintain credibility, the answer may not be so clear cut. Certainly Damon Albarn drew a line in the sand when he withdrew his cartoon group Gorillaz from the 2001 Mercury shortlist. Bassist Murdoc was "quoted" as saying winning would be "like carrying a dead albatross round your neck for eternity". Albarn has maintained a consistent stance since then, with neither Blur nor The Good, The Bad and The Queen albums being nominated. The eventual winner, PJ Harvey, chose to be in Washington DC on the night of the ceremony.

You could understand Albarn's sour grapes that Blur had been on the shortlist twice, losing out in 1999 to Talvin Singh and 1994 to M People. That latter was one of several bland selections that bemused critics and public alike. Now, though, the Mercury is in a position where it can celebrate worthy and popular winners, Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand among them. Even widely heralded artists can benefit sales-wise from coming top, with winners of the Mercury and the Brit Awards enjoying a surge in sales.

For the former, this includes those artists on the 12-strong shortlist, effectively winners themselves. A couple of years ago, HMV reported that the be-quiffed Richard Hawley and the new folkie Lou Rhodes tripled sales of their nominated albums. Good news this year, then, for the likes of the reclusive dubstep artist Burial and clog-wearer Rachel Unthank. Music industries abroad have been impressed with such sales figures, leading to the US Shortlist Prize being unveiled in 2001, with Ireland's Choice and the Canadian Polaris Music Prize following.

The Brit Awards is best remembered for controversies off stage, including KLF's dead sheep and John Prescott's early bath. Winning a Brit is generally the serene icing on the cake for successful return on investment, unless you look at Annie Lennox winning Best Female Artist without releasing a record, or Belle and Sebastian nabbing Best Newcomer from an expectant Steps. Yet no one would blame the former Eurythmic for topping the Brit charts or her fellow Scots for enjoying an especially fervent fanbase (apart from The Sun, which claimed the poll was rigged).

Largely, the same is true of the NME Awards, where more interest is focused on how much damage The Cribs can do to themselves in one night, or what Bob Geldof might have to say about Russell Brand.

Over the Mercury, though, hangs a fabled curse. Ms Dynamite followed her sparkly 2002 winner A Little Deeper three years later with the turgid Judgement Day and was last seen on a Sky One reality sports show. Gomez disappeared off the map for the best part of a decade, Talvin Singh hit a creative brick wall, and Roni Size sank without trace, along with the rest of drum'n'bass.

In this case, maybe Blur, Oasis and Kaiser Chiefs were better off not winning for Parklife, (What's The Story) Morning Glory and Employment. Recent events, though, suggest the curse angle may have been overplayed. After winning in 2004, Franz Ferdinand cemented their claim to be guitar-pop kings by coming back the next year with You Could Have It So Much Better, while the Arctics followed up their 2006 success with a strong second album, Favourite Worst Nightmare.

Perhaps the Mercury judges are getting better at backing winners in it for the long haul. With their dry wit and earthiness, the Arctics, in particular, seem to have a particularly grounded attitude towards ceremonies, rarely turning up and, when they do, shrugging off the honours thrust on them. The stakes are higher these days: in a shrinking market, bands like Franz and The Klaxons are looking to break America. These gongs are too narrow in focus to make an impact on the trajectories of a successful band.

The Mercury Prize will be announced on 9 September