Every year, the people behind the Barclaycard Mercury Prize get together to announce their pick for the best British album of the year, and it’s at least a little bit of a big deal over there. Earlier this week, the show’s organizers announced this year’s shortlist of nominees, and it included a bunch of great high-profile albums from people like David Bowie, Savages, Disclosure, Arctic Monkeys, James Blake, Jon Hopkins, and Foals. There was, however, one grand and prominent omission: My Bloody Valentine’s decades-in-the-making comeback album m b v. And Kevin Shields noticed.
The sometimes-reclusive MBV leader Shields doesn’t exactly give a whole lot of interviews, but he was incensed enough at the album’s omission to talk to The Guardian about it. Here’s the problem: My Bloody Valentine self-released their album, selling it on Bandcamp with almost no advance warning. And one of the Mercury Prize’s criteria for inclusion is that the album has to have “a digital and physical distribution deal in place in the UK.”
Shields thinks this rule is straight goofy: “Isn’t Mercury a phone company or something, anyway? What’s that got to do with music? We’re banned by them, and do you know why? Because we’re not on Amazon or iTunes. That’s one of the qualifying criteria. You have to have major distribution or be on iTunes or Amazon.”
To Shields, this represents a marginalization of anyone who won’t play ball with the record companies: “We released our record, m b v, independently. It’s interesting to learn that to be as independent as we are is… virtually illegal It’s not a real record. Our album’s not a real album because it’s independent. The corporate-ness has got to such a point where we’ve essentially been told that we don’t exist. So, technically, that album doesn’t exist. OK? It’s not allowed to exist according to the Mercury prize.”
Shields also sees this as part of a larger pattern; he complains about the album getting very little press attention in the UK. (The American music internet, I hope Shields realizes, was an entirely different situation.) If you’re inclined to look at it a certain way, Shields’s argument can look a bit like sour grapes. But it’s also true that the entire nature of the album is changing, and anyone making lists like this is going to have to deal with it. When those of us in the press make year-end lists, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot if we disqualify mixtapes or limited-release records or digital-only releases, since that’s where you’ll find a lot of truly great music. Perhaps the Mercury Prize people should update their rulebook.
As it happens, MBV’s last album, 1991’s Loveless, was also banned from Mercury Prize consideration, because the Mercury Prize didn’t exist yet. It started a year later, when it gave the first big award to Primal Scream’s Screamadelica.