This year, as with many of our favourite things, the Hyundai Mercury Prize is having to do things a little differently. So while, as usual, the Prize will be celebrating twelve of 2020’s most brilliant British albums - thanks to you-know-what - this week’s show will be taking on a somewhat different guise.
While traditionally, a selection of British music’s finest head over to London’s Hammersmith Apollo to perform cuts from their shortlisted albums, and a voting panel discuss and debate their decision on the winning album that same night, this year’s edition will be split into several parts. While this evening (Wednesday 23rd September), BBC Four will host a show dedicated to performances from all of the shortlisted artists - in locations personal to them - the winner will then be announced live on BBC One’s The One Show the following day.
To talk us through this year’s new format, and reflect on both the challenges and importance of being flexible this year, we spoke to the BPI’s CEO Geoff Taylor, to shed a little light on what exactly we can expect.
It’s not long now until the 2020 Hyundai Mercury Prize gets under way - how’re you looking forward to it?
We’re really excited, just as we always are, ahead of the show. Obviously we don’t have a live event this year, so we’ve had to be flexible. But instead, we’ve put all that energy into trying to create a bigger platform for the artists and their music, and we’re really excited that this year we’ve got more TV coverage than ever before, greater digital coverage than ever before, and I think we’re all just really excited to find out who wins.
It feels as though having something like the Hyundai Mercury Prize taking place this year is even more of a highlight than usual, especially after such a tumultuous year for live music. Was that a factor in pushing forward with it?
We decided very early on that we thought it was all the more important that we run the Hyundai Mercury Prize this year, despite all of the difficulties. We knew it was going to be somewhat of a fallow summer in terms of festivals, and that release schedules would be impacted by the pandemic, so we were just really determined to give the artists this platform, to promote their work and to shine a spotlight on the music. There’s been so much amazing music in the last year, and that’s what the Mercury is there to do - to bring that music to a wider audience. We felt it was all the more important this year.
You confirmed the dates for this year’s Prize back in April this year, when we had already been in lockdown. Were you aware from the start that this year’s edition would feel quite different to previous incarnations?
Yes, we took that decision pretty early on. I spoke to the heads at many labels, and gave them my view that we should go ahead, and that we’d need to be flexible in terms of exactly what the event would look like. Everyone supported that, so then we developed a number of scenarios. As we worked through the challenges, in terms of producing the event, we settled on this approach of more TV coverage, and to try and get even more viewers to see the winner moment, which hopefully we’ll achieve this year. And also to focus on the winner more afterwards, which we’ll be doing with the Jools Holland show. We feel it’s the best possible solution for this very strange year; while we’re all going to miss being in a room together and having the live event, nonetheless we think the Hyundai Mercury Prize can make a really big impact this year.
What exactly can viewers expect from the BBC Four programme, which will be aired this evening at 10pm?
The original plan had been to film all of the artists once after the other in the Apollo. What we realised was, in order to get all of the artists involved and make it easier for production, we should go to them. We filmed a number of artists around the country; we filmed up in Gateshead, we filmed in Brighton, we filmed in [London’s] Bush Hall. So, each [of the performances] will have their own unique feel but hopefully with a common thread of the Mercury Prize production values. The BBC have been a fantastic partner in getting really high quality performances, so yeah, there’ll be unique content that viewers can see, that’s never been seen before.
What was really important to us is that this show isn’t a series of Zoom calls; we’ve seen a lot of content produced that’s basically been artists sitting at home - if you’re lucky with a guitar - but we felt that that really isn’t what the Hyundai Mercury Prize is about. We really wanted to make sure that we had bands performing together, giving their best performance of their amazing work. That’s what this show is all about; it’s really about capturing top quality performances from the artists.
“The Hyundai Mercury Prize is there to bring that music to a wider audience. We felt it was all the more important this year.”
— Geoff Taylor
One of the most special things about the night of the Prize is the energy from the artists in the room on the night; do you feel those same feelings of camaraderie will still be present this year, even through this new format?
There is something really special about all the artists being in the room together, but that community of spirit, I think, is still very much clear this year. What we feel about the Hyundai Mercury Prize is that there are twelve winners - there are twelve albums of the year, all of which are being celebrated. They tend to be very musically diverse - as they are again this year - from pop to jazz to grime; everything’s in there as it should be. But I think all the artists have such respect for each other, and there’s a well of good will and you really feel that. I think that’s there this year, even having to do it remotely. The judging process is particularly interesting too - I’m always really excited that it happens on the night - and so we’re keeping the integrity of that judging process exactly as it normally would be. We’re not able to do it on Wednesday night, because we want a focus on the winner, so that’s now happening on the One Show on Thursday, which means we’ll have a much bigger mainstream audience that we’ve typically had, but we want to keep that celebration of all twelve albums; all of which are special, and we’ll continue promoting those albums, even after the winner is announced.
There’s also a sense that, right now, because live music is being so sorely missed, that to see live performances in this manner will be very much important for a lot of music fans.
I think we need to say, in particular, a big thank you to Rachel Davies [BBC Music’s Commissioning Executive] at the BBC, who’s done an astonishing job pulling together these different TV moments for us. At the BPI, we have always felt that the Mercury Prize is the best British music of the year and it deserves to be on the main BBC channels. I always made that argument - not just to Rachel, but to other senior colleagues at the BBC - and so this year, they’ve worked really hard to make that happen. They’ve put enormous effort, under much more difficult circumstances than normal, into making that happen, and we’re really grateful for the focus they’ve given to us. They’re a terrific partner. Also, our partner in Hyundai as the main sponsor, despite the fact we’ve had to do things differently, they’ve been tremendously supportive. We’ve had YouTube Music come on as a partner, they have created the official playlist and are in fact doing a worldwide live stream of the BBC Four show for the first time. We are also welcoming Bowers & Wilkins as partners, providing their outstanding audiophile headphones to artists and judges, so they can listen to the albums in the very best audio quality. I think this strong support in a challenging year shows that there’s a lot of goodwill towards the Prize, and we’re truly grateful to work with partners like that.
You’ve also involved some other elements this year to really add to the whole experience of the Prize, such as getting Tim Burgess and his Twitter Listening Parties involved to introduce people to the records in full. Did that feel particularly important this year?
I think we’re always looking for new ways to engage with fans around the shortlisted albums, and I think Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties have been a tremendous success. We’re always looking for ways to create a community that engages in discussion about the music, and can engage together, in the Prize as something that’s a really interesting talking point for music. I think Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties have been a great way to do that and bring that community together, and it’s just another string to the bow. I really hope that it’s something we can repeat.
Presumably for the 2021 Hyundai Mercury Prize, you’ll be hoping to return to a similar format to previous years but - while it may be too early to say! - are there any elements from this year that you’d hope to carry over?
We all hope that we’ll be back to some form of normality, we very much hope that! I love the excitement of the live event, so I do want to bring that back and hopefully that will be possible in more or less normal form, by this time next year. But I think it’s more about adding in these extra elements. We really hope that this multi-pronged TV approach is successful, and that we can persuade the BBC to hang on to that. We believe that the best British music of the year deserves to be put in front of a mainstream BBC One, BBC Two audience, and, that the BBC as a public service broadcaster, should be doing that. It has a cultural responsibility to reflect the best British music to the public, and it deserves to be much than just a BBC Four programme. We’re also investing more than ever in promoting the albums, so I hope we’ll be able to continue that, and just find more and more prongs, so that more and more people can hear this amazing music.
Finally, what would you hope viewers to take from the Hyundai Mercury Prize this year?
I hope that they will have their interests sparked in artists that they otherwise wouldn’t have explored. Across all these different genres of music, it may be that you’re perhaps a more traditional Mercury Prize follower, who likes indie guitar music, and feels very comfortable with Lanterns on the Lake and Laura Marling, but there are [many] other genres represented. whether it’s Moses Boyd’s incredible album, whether it’s Kano, whether it’s pop with Dua Lipa. I personally think the Dua Lipa is an astonishing record, full of amazing bangers - just full of incredible pop music, which is brilliant written, and brilliantly performed. What I love about the Hyundai Mercury Prize is the ability to put that alongside Lanterns on the Lake, or Porridge Radio, and appreciate them for being very different kinds of music, but that are brilliant in their different ways.
I really hope that the Mercury Prize will encourage that musical eclecticism, and encourage the exploration of different forms of British music, so that fans can come away with an appreciation of just how talented these artists are, in their different genres. We want to celebrate them all as winners this year, and that’s what we want from the Prize. I genuinely have no idea who is going to win - you never quite know what’s quite going to come out of the other end of that discussion, and that’s what makes it exciting. I am, however, absolutely certain, that the winner that emerges will be someone who has made a truly outstanding record, and one that will stand the test of time. That's what we want from the Prize: it's a celebration of how wonderful British music is.
Brought to you as part of our media partnership with Hyundai.
Watch performances from the shortlisted artists on BBC Four at 10pm on 23rd September.