London bias seems to be a thing at the moment. Joining political elites and the financial overlords theory comes 'Is the Mercury biased towards London?' That's the suggestion of Tim Ingham, editor of Music Week, in this week's issue and ties the music industry in with finance, the Commons, media and law in a suggested metropolitan conspiracy against the remainder of the UK.
Given that the Mercury judges are drawn predominantly from a metropolitan crew of media types with a couple of artists thrown in and are also beholden to that media given the demands of pr oxygen for any awards ceremony this is an argument that holds some weight. However hard judges may try to base decisions purely on musical merit I would suggest it is nigh on impossible to be deaf to the cultural positioning of many of the suggested acts prior to the judging process or the possible opinions on those choices from their peers. Add into that the absence of certain musical representatives on the panel, no room for a Kerrang writer or editorial representative, and you are already in a process of self-selecting before you begin. Similarly there is a definitive absence of regional voices. No Scottish writers, no room for a Northern based figure like Mike Walsh of XFM or John Robb. Therefore Tim's argument would seem to have some basis in fact. Dotted across the panel are BBC faces, ICA types, broadsheet music editors, all based in London and all, to some extent, the very epitome of the 'London media type'.
The Mercury shortlist isn't really the point here though. The list is reflective of a trend rather than an individual example of a narrowing of scope.
In a previous post I bemoaned the lack of authentic contemporary working class voices on our televisions. Music and its attendant media share a similar problem. And before we degenerate into a Pythonesque comparison of social ills, I appreciate that there are a few faces that buck this trend but, much like the Oxbridge intake demographics, with its frantic pointing at the state school kids, those fig leaves cannot cover the reality. Transpose 'London' for 'metropolitan middle class' and the workings of not just the Mercury shortlist, ultimately a subjective assertion of what is 'good', but the whole process of the trajectory of a new band to prominence becomes less opaque.
The Mercury lays claim to existing to promote new albums from a variety of genres to a new audience. In truth, and in particular with this year's shortlist, it is concerned with 'buzz' outside of its non tokenistic (jazz and classical nominees, the cannon fodder of the shortlist) choices. Given that 'buzz' in the music industry is (like so much else in the UK) centralised on London in a feeding chain that links blogs to music sites to broadsheets and the NME to the ultimate goal of Radio One it is little surprise that London acts, on the doorstep of an industry and media increasingly unwilling and, at times, financially unable, to travel in that way that A & Rs and media did 20 years hence should draw in an ever myopic gaze on the capital. More than ever, and ironically given the supposed liberation of the internet from geographical tyranny, playing London is an absolute necessity for a band looking to get noticed.
Meanwhile access to the non-London outlets for national notice, whether the labels like Factory or Postcard or regional voices whether writers or bloggers or DJs are greatly reduced. Whilst bands like Echo & The Bunnymen, Joy Division or The Stones Roses were championed from their home areas that situation is almost impossible under current media constructs. The paucity of mainstream national media voices in even cities like Manchester or Liverpool, musical centres that have produced time and time again, demonstrates an increasingly tight grip of the London agenda on the music media and therefore, the industry itself, given its new found tendencies to replace innovation and confrontation with social media chasing and audience fulfillment - the 'how many followers?' new orthodoxy of gauging a band's worth.
Thus finance rears its ugly head. The cost for a non London based band of playing London is a self selecting barrier for all but the most well off, especially given the all consuming trend for free entry shows. But finance and background also play in more subtle ways to cement this hegemony of a metropolitan takeover of what I shall call 'visible' music.
Cultures tend to correlate. The intake across the music industry is increasingly predetermined by the internship. That has become another self selector in the make-up of our industry, excluding those kids who are ex Home Counties or from non monied backgrounds from getting their first foot on the ladder. Who can afford a three month soujourn in London post University without a free bed or a trust fund? The same is true in the media that promote music, the publishing houses, the radio stations, the BBC, the PR's and pluggers and management companies. Whilst I am not suggesting that those in positions across the music industry and media do not deserve to be there when you are selecting salaried staff from a predetermined pool (and internships are now so prevalent that this is the case) you invariably end up with an intake that is in no way reflective of the totality of the social make-up of the UK.
And that matters. Culture is not strengthened by a takeover from a subsection of society. The history of popular music in the UK is not one of any particular strata ascending, the mix of a Mondays with a Radiohead, a Depeche Mode with a Pink Floyd, a Culture Club with a Kinks, the particular melting pots of the two titans, The Beatles art school / working class clash mirrored by the Stones (Jagger posh, Richards poor)demonstrate a strength that has run through our music making, that of cross class and cross cultural experience. What the Mercury list truly reflects is a segment of taste, reflected through an increasingly homogenous media that, despite much talk of ever greater opportunities, narrows our world and prescribes a vision of music that bears no relation to that enjoyed by the wider public.