Saturday, September 06, 2008

Frith not Froth

Simon Frith - the music writer and Mercury judge chair, not the one who writes for The Archers - has been given a gentle grilling at The Pop Cop. They ask him if, given that the album is now more than ever looking like a random construct, there's much future for the Mercury Prize. Unsurprisingly, Frith doesn't think so:

If you take music making, we're constantly reading that because of the way the internet works, the iPod revolution and downloading in terms of individual tracks, that the album no longer really makes sense as a unit in which people listen to music and therefore the fact we have an album prize is increasingly going to become anomalous in that digital world. But making albums is how musicians see the world and how they conceive the musical space they want to occupy.

Is that really true, though? You don't have to be an indie-pop head to think of a large number of bands who saw their medium as the seven inch single; there was a period when the four track 12" ep was "the musical space" in which bands thrived.

And Frith surely wouldn't attempt to argue that there's something inherent in the musician's approach that means they create in chunks which magically happens to reflect the arbitrary length of a CD or two sides of a 12" disc rotating one hundred times ever three minutes?

It might be a sign of the decreasing relevance of an album prize, though, that the most interesting discussion revolves around the 2001 and 1997 prizes - 2001 because it took place on September 11th that year; 1997, because that was the time when Roni Size beat out OK Computer.

Frith maintains, eleven years later, that this was the correct decision:
The winner has nothing to do with representational function. Roni Size didn't win because they represented something, they won because on the night the judges decided that was the record they thought was the record of the year.
I look back and still think Roni Size's record was a great record too. And I think Roni Size has a significant impact on the story of music in Britain - the whole set of sounds and approaches to music - which are just as significant as Radiohead's.

While that's true, isn't there something contradictory in suggesting that the record won purely because it was the best, but justifying the decision in hindsight by pointing to its influence?

You wonder: does Frith bother that the judging decision that people debate is from over a decade ago?


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