When Primal Scream scooped the first ever Mercury Music Prize with their groundbreaking debut, Screamadelica, way back in 1992, they unwittingly set a precedent.
Not by famously managing to lose the awarded 20 grand cheque before they even left the building. No, because Bobby Gillespie's Creation-singed crew beat major label heavyweights like U2 by making what the judges considered to be the best album of the year. In hindsight, this was a sign of things to come - since then, the Mercury Prize and independent labels have gone together like gig venues and sticky floors.
The Nationwide Mercury Prize celebrates the wealth and breadth of British music. Every year, the panel of judges selects a shortlist of the year's best records before picking a winner at a televised bash. All UK and Irish-born artists are eligible - the only stipulation is that the albums must be entered by a label. However, it matters not a jot whether that label has an annual turnover equivalent to that of a small South American country or operates out of Grandma's spare room, which explains how humble self-released folkies like last year's Seth Lakeman can find themselves rubbing shoulders on the esteemed shortlist with major label megastars like Coldplay.The Mercury offers the chance for the upstart Davids of the music industry to compete alongside its bloated Goliaths. And a quick perusal of the shortlists reveals that these plucky independents have, more often than not, proven themselves to be successful contenders.
In recent years, independent signed artists have consistently outnumbered their major label counterparts on the critically selective shortlist (eight out of 2005's 12 albums were on indies). Moreover, the last three Prize winners - last year's Rough Trade-signed Antony & The Johnsons, Domino's Franz Ferdinand in 2004 and XL's Dizzee Rascal in 2003 - have all hailed from independents.
But these labels don't owe their success to any favouritism or tokenism on the Mercury Prize's part. "We treat all artists and labels equally," insists Nationwide Mercury Prize Director, Kevin Milburn.
And, having sat on the judging panel the last two years, I can vouch for the fact that all artists - regardless of their genre or label - genuinely do earn their coveted spot on the shortlist through merit. The 200 CDs submitted every year arrive at the judges' doors bundled in boxes, in no particular order, without any of the usual breathless PR bumph. Then we have to listen to each and every one of them and pick our 20 favourites from which we compile the shortlist. Within that bumper batch of records is a incredible range of music: from glitchy electronica to gospel, bare-bones alt-folk to eclectic world fusions. Dozens of these hail from independent labels. And unlike the acts on the major labels, there are always some records among the smallest independents' offerings that I've never even heard of before.
Existing on the fringes of pop/rock/whatever and free from any commercial sheen, there's no question of hearing these bands on the radio or buying them in your high street record store. Indeed, their label probably only exists to put out a few hundred copies of one album. In truth, listening to some of these records, you can understand why you've not heard of them - they are, frankly, awful.
But, often, listening to these unknown artists is the most rewarding part of being a Mercury judge (and, no, there's no payment). Having these CDs arrive is a wonderful and unique way to discover new music. And those obscure albums can, and do, end up in my final list. Because, clichéd as it may sound, the Mercury Prize really is all about the music.
"The great thing about the Mercury Prize is that it's based on creative not commercial criteria," says Beggars Group boss Martin Mills whose label XL brought us one of last year's nominees, MIA.
By considering just the music, the prize places the independent and major labels on a level playing field where advertising budgets, record sales and chart success don't matter. For the cash-strapped independent, this is very handy indeed. Particularly as they have that impressive habit of winning the prize.
So why is that? The simple reason would seem to be that independents have a very different raison d'être to the majors. They exist to take chances and sign more innovative and adventurous acts - the kind of acts that always stand a good chance of making it onto the Mercury's shortlist. Majors, says Warp Records' Steve Beckett, are ultimately responsible to their shareholders who, naturally, care more about their dividends than any artistic rewards.
"We at independents have the luxury of releasing music we love and then seeing how we can reach the public with it. Not the other way around. If we took some of our releases to a major they would probably think there was a technical fault on the demo."
But if they took them to the Mercury judges - who, as critics and radio professionals, are always likely to look favourably on music that challenges them - they might just find themselves nominated. And if they are, the rewards are immediate.
"The Mercury Prize gives an independent artist a profile they might otherwise never have," explains Domino's Bart McDonagh. Just being on the shortlist raises an artist's profile overnight and hitherto unknowns can - and do - cross over to the mainstream.
From the moment the papers announce the shortlist, right up to the prime time TV coverage on the night of the awards, the Mercury Prize places artists in the spotlight for eight attention grabbing weeks. It led to Seth Lakeman's experimental folk debut, Kitty Jay - released on his own label because no one else would release it - becoming the biggest selling folk record of the year.
Of course, actually winning the Prize can have an even more dramatic effect: "After Antony & The Johnson won, we had orders for 40,000 records the next morning," says Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis. "The Mercury Prize does nothing but good for independent labels." As well as creating a launchpad to mainstream success, making the shortlist is also an important vote of confidence. Says Beggars' Martin Mills, "The Mercury Prize is an acknowledgement that what you're doing has real artistic value."
Seth Lakeman says that being shortlisted for the prize really boosted his confidence as an artist, but it's not just the musicians who feel this critical stamp of approval. "It made us feel like we're part of the music business," says Matt Jacob who founded Memphis Industries with his brother Ollie in 1998. "Normally it feels like we're doing a hobby in our parents' garden shed - which, effectively, we are."
So the Mercury, it seems, loves independents as much as the independents love the Mercury. And the impact of that is equally relevant to independent and major labels alike. Because, by continuing to recognise innovative music - and, crucially, by bringing it that wider attention - it encourages more of the same. And for that we're all winners.