he Polaris Music Prize issued its first award in 2006 to Owen Pallett (then Final Fantasy) for He Poos Clouds. The album had already received much critical acclaim, but it’s likely that a significant portion of its financial take came from the Polaris’ $20,000 honorarium (the prize has since been raised to $30,000). Today, the Polaris Prize is widely viewed as Canada’s answer to the Mercury Prize (and was in fact modeled on the UK award).
But when international superstars Arcade Fire and Feist won a Polaris in two successive years some bristled. Why was Polaris awarding this kind of money, a career-making sum for a majority of their annual nominees, to bands that could afford to regard it as a trifling amount? Is spurring artistic cultivation more important than rewarding artistic merit? Are the two mutually exclusive? And can Polaris strike a balance between the two while lining the pockets of Grammy winners?
Difficult questions. But given the host of common misconceptions that surround media coverage of the award every year, there’s a chance that you may not understand the mandate that Polaris set out for itself. We checked out their guidelines and spoke with Founder and Executive Director Steve Jordan, Chief Returning Officer James Keast, as well as 2013 nominees Emily Haines of Metric, A Tribe Called Red’s Bear Witness, and Colin Stetson. What resulted was a lively series of discussions on a Canadian musical institution’s place in the industry it judges.
Steve Jordan (Founder/Executive Director):
[I first had the idea] around 2001. I had been paying more and more attention to the Mercury Prize’s short list. There would always be five records that I knew and another handful that I didn’t. So I'd check out the ones I didn’t know and think hey, this is actually pretty great, and that’s where the light bulb went off. If a simple list could modify my music consumption behavior, perhaps Canadians might be so moved as well.
I was out of work then, so I reached out to various industry people and musicians. I certainly got moral support, but the money to get us started took another five years…
Our budget for the year is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range. That pays for staffing, all of the marketing, it pays for the gala, the gala broadcast. We also have international efforts through hiring publicists in the UK and the US. The money mostly comes from sponsorships, so it’s 90% sponsorship or government funded. And 90% is generous. It’s probably closer to 95%.
[The definition of “artistic merit” is] up to each person on the jury. I know what it means to me but that’s not important. For some people, it’s this is absolutely groundbreaking, this is doing something I haven’t heard anyone else do. For others it’s this record is totally what I’ll think about when I think about this month in history. For others it’s just taking a stab in the dark and saying this is a record that will last for all of eternity.
We’re purposely not putting any criteria on it, like giving marks for lyricism, instrumentation, or production. Different things matter for different people. They listen for different things. That mosaic of opinion is a beautiful thing to behold.
Emily Haines (Metric):
In the arts it seems as though the crown or award is often given for dubious accomplishments. It’s either based on sales or external things. This one feels like a point of pride, like what do people really love?
James Keast (Chief Returning Officer):
The biggest misconception I hear about the Polaris Prize is that it's somehow an award for up-and-coming artists or emerging artists, that there's a commitment to some aspect of indie/underground/emerging art that is simply not there. I don't know how many times we (Polaris, collectively) have said "best album, period" but people still see it as related somehow to a specific music subset. That continues to persist.
[An "emerging artist" criterion is] never going to be considered. That's partly because I don’t know how you would define that – like, what’s an emerging artist? Does someone have to not sell a number of records? That strikes me as punishing someone for being good and successful at what they do, which is weird.
It’s purposeless to dedicate your life to your art and then be punished for achieving success for it. I don’t think you should be eliminated from the prize just because you’ve worked on something for ten years and made progress.
In 2007 we got accused of our short list being "too indie rock." And no two artists were musically the same on this list. But there was a political association with what people called “indie rock,” which no one has given me a satisfactory description for. Before you can categorize something as indie rock, you need to tell me what that means.
Bear Witness (A Tribe Called Red):
When our first album [A Tribe Called Red, 2012] got nominated, it was the only prize that we were actually eligible for because the album circumvented the music industry: It was not on a label, it was a free download, it wasn’t in stores. So the Junos, the Aboriginal Music Awards, any of those, we weren’t eligible for. But we were eligible for the Polaris.
We certainly don’t ask people what colour they are or what language they speak. What we do is look for are people who are experts in certain musical genres and try to have a healthy representation from female music journalists, but really where we’re going and recruiting from we’re limited by the diversity that already exists. So if music writing is largely a white male concern, that’s going to hamper our efforts to be as diverse and possible. I like to think that we are as diverse and possible given those parameters.
I do see a lot of complaints about Toronto and Montreal being a large part of the jury, but it’s where a lot of people move to to make it in journalism.
I don’t think you could truly prevent someone from being corrupt. You just have to figure out when they’re being corrupt. There are very strict rules about voting for anything that you are personally involved in. We don’t invite anyone to the jury who is from the industry part of the industry. We invite journalists or bloggers or media people… We’re very strict about conflict of interest and if there is one, real or perceived, they’re to declare it with us. If they don’t and we find out, they’re off the jury forever.
It’s really hard to draw a line where the art stops and something that we deem to be politics starts. All of these things are in orbit around this core of what we think as the pure judgement of artistic expression. But even when I said that, it felt crazy to say out loud.
[Around 200 jurors] discuss and suggest records all year [on a message board] and vote their five picks for the long list, and then they do a second ballot that determines the short list from the long list nominees.
I read [the message board] and I occasionally contribute to it, usually to tell people to calm the fuck down or to stop making fun of people’s tastes or to stop making jokes about records that people don’t like. Steve jokingly refers to us as "the Swiss" because we’re neutral but often it feels a bit more like babysitting.“Alright everybody, back to your corners! Be a little respectful. Stop throwing thought grenades at someone who disagrees with you.” It’s generally civil but occasionally not.
One of each of [the 11 Grand Jury members) has to have had one of the ten short listed records as number one or close on their ballot, so we ensure that every record has someone advocating for it.
Knowing that, people have an assumption that jurors are very entrenched in their opinions and in staunch defense of the one record that they have ostensibly been brought there to defend. But, to my great delight, everyone takes this process really seriously and are as open – if not more open – to albums that they’re less familiar with. The level of analysis is really quite impressive in terms of a real understanding of what the record is about, its intentions, whether or not it’s achieving those intentions, its context in a larger picture of its own genre. Is it pushing things forward within the realm in which it’s working? What about the lyrical content? What about the production?
Given the amount of [public] conversation about what the short list and long list mean, or what a certain winner is going to mean, almost none of that goes into these conversations.
As soon as the jury starts on the night of the Gala, we have everyone vote for their five favourites out of the ten short listed records in ranked order. I tabulate those results and the bottom five fall off. So the jury debate on the night essentially surrounds only five records.
Then we do voting to pick top three of those five, then more debate, and then if everyone feels like they’ve had their say, then we have a final vote and from that the winner is determined.
Two common misconceptions are that [the decision is] unanimous, which it’s not, and that the grand jurors know what the decision is before it’s announced, because they don’t. They’re informed when it’s announced on stage.
A few years ago I might have said it’s just the meaning of the prize but frankly, for all musicians at all stages in their career, you’re kind of getting it taken away from you at every corner. It’s certainly exciting to not only be recognized but to receive some fuel for the fire, be able to buy a microphone or guitar amp. In our case it’s our studio that we run out of Toronto.
So yeah, it’s great that it’s not just lip service. Most musicians just get a pat on the back but it’s hard to keep your business going with just a pat on the back.