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Is the Mercury Prize Cursed?

Posted on the 07 September 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost
PJ Harvey. Photo credit jeje62 PJ Harvey won the 2011 Mercury Prize last night for her album Let England Shake, and became the first artist to win the prize twice. The sales impact of the victory was immediate, with music weekly NME reporting that the album’s Amazon sales increased by 1,190% overnight, lifting it to number two in the site’s overall sales chart. But the Mercury Prize has not always been such a guarantee of commercial success: here’s a recap of the blessings – and the curses – that it has bestowed on its winners over the years. Curse of the Mercury? For many artists, winning the Mercury Prize turned out to be a career commercial peak. The list of past winners offers plenty of ‘where are they now?’ moments including Roni Size/Reprazent (1997), Talvin Singh (1999), and Klaxons (2007) – the latter famously beating out Amy Winehouse’sBack to Black, which is now the biggest selling UK album of the decade. Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz were so leery of the Mercury’s perceived negative impact that they rejected their nomination in 2001, comparing winning the prize to “carrying a dead albatross round your neck for eternity.” Maybe it’s better not to win the prize after all? Speech impediment. Speech Debelle may well agree with that. Spare a thought for the 2009 winner, who not only has hardly been heard of since but left her record label just months after winning the prize, her album Speech Therapyhaving sold barely 10,000 copies in total. The lowest-selling Mercury Prize winner of all time, Debelle blamed her label for failing to adequately market or distribute her album. “The Mercury Prize was on Tuesday,” she said at the time,“and on Friday there were no more physical albums in the shops.” NB: that’s not because they’d sold out. It’s because there weren’t any copies in the shops to begin with. Happier stories. It’s not all doom and gloom though. Some winners, such as Primal Scream (1992) and Dizzee Rascal (2003) have gone on to long and successful careers. And for some, such as The xx (2010), it’s just too early for the optimism engendered by winning to have worn off. Others, like Portishead (1995) and Antony & The Johnsons (2005) seem to have been utterly unfazed by their victories and have just kept on plowing their weird, lonely furrows as if nothing had happened. In general, the artists themselves rarely seem that bothered by winning the prize, and many of them would probably concur with Simon Price’s observation in The Independent that the award “shows the music business at its most smug and least charming.”  

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