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Last Updated: Friday, 2 September 2005, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Judging music the Mercury way
By Darren Waters
BBC News entertainment reporter

Kaiser Chiefs lead singer
I predict a Mercury? The Kaiser Chiefs are favourites for the prize

In the third of a series of occasional interviews with key players in the entertainment industry, the BBC News website speaks to Simon Frith, chairman of the Nationwide Mercury Music award judging panel and professor of Film and Media Studies, at the University of Stirling.

He mainly listens to BBC Radio 3, does not own an iPod and says the Mercury Prize has never got its winner wrong.

Simon Frith has chaired the Mercury judging panel for 13 years, written some of the most influential books on rock music, as well as writing for publications as diverse as Rolling Stone and the Sunday Times.

On Tuesday the winner of the 2005 Mercury Prize will be announced and whoever wins, the decision will be picked over, analysed and in some quarters derided.

And for all those reasons, Professor Frith says the Mercury is doing its job.

"The point of the Mercury is not simply to elect a winner; the point of the Mercury is to give publicity to and celebrate all sorts of music," he says.


The Mercury shortlist of 12 has always included albums that are classed as jazz, folk or classical.

Damon Albarn (left) and Heather Small (right)
Blur have the credibility but M People won the Mercury prize in 1994

But there has never been a winner from those genres, much to Professor Frith's dismay.

"I think it would be of huge significance if we did have a winner from one of those genres.

"As a personal judge I have in the past tried to argue for that because I liked those records best. I will go on trying."

Looking back at the Mercury winners, the only consistency of selection would appear to be the panel's ability to surprise commentators with its decisions.

M People's Elegant Slumming pipping Blur's Parklife to the prize in 1994 is one of the most controversial decisions of the last 13 years.

"I never ever think we have got a winner wrong," says Professor Frith.

Mainstream American commercial music is now so formalised and standardised
Simon Frith

"Sometimes I think I don't like the record anymore, and sometimes I didn't like it when it was a winner but I always think that it is a really interesting record that had an impact and stood for the year."

He adds: "You can never stand up and say this was an objective rational decision."

Parklife may not have won the Mercury but it did herald the Britpop years, which Professor Frith dismisses as "marketing".

"I was always suspicious of this idea there was a movement.

"In many ways Oasis and Blur were coming out of different traditions and making different sorts of music."

Enormous change

A decade on from then and the music industry is undergoing enormous change, from the advent of downloading and the rise of mobile phone ringtones to the decline of the single.

Despite the upheaval, Professor Frith believes the quality of music and interest in it remains consistent.

How previous Mercury winners have fared after lifting the prize

"I have always believed ever since I was a rock critic there's always the same amount of good and bad music around."

He says he is unmoved by the impact of the iPod age on the sharing of music.

"People who obsessively load up their iPods with 50,000 tracks they never listen to, I don't think that particularly helps the sharing of music.

"I think a lot of people have a lot of pleasure just loading their iPod."

He does not own an iPod and says he would only buy one if he were to live in a jungle for six months.

'Odd technology'

He adds: "I am part of a generation that still likes material objects. iPods are an odd technology because they are cataloguing devices that pretend to be listening devices."

Professor Frith also says he is not concerned by the Americanisation of music and the lack of British acts making an impact in the US.

Seth Lakeman
Will a folk artist ever win the Mercury?

"Mainstream American commercial music is now so formalised and standardised it is hard for anything else outside to get a look in.

"It's not just British music that doesn't appear there, an awful lot of American music doesn't appear there either."

He adds: "We have got a fantasy left over from the Beatles, that somehow to be big in America means being number one in the Billboard charts and being on the front page of newspapers."

On Tuesday he will help choose the 2005 Mercury winner, but he must also wear his chairman's hat.

"Because I am chairing I know I have got to be able to co-ordinate and share other people's arguments in a fair sort of way," he says.

"The judging meetings are fantastic fun. We've never had a judge who didn't want to do it again. It's an unusual privilege."

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