Drake vs. Mac DeMarco? An Inside Look at How the Winner of the Polaris Prize Is Named
Behind the unique, alcohol-fueled (and potentially violent) debate that determines the annual prize for Canada's top album.
The Polaris Prize will be announced this evening, with our sister to the north's top album being named after what is, apparently, a unique system for determining the winner. Below, Billboard correspondent Karen Bliss explains how the process worked, from her unique vantage as a juror in 2011.
Back in 2011, I was asked to sit on the Grand Jury for the Polaris Music Prize to determine the Canadian Album of the Year. The Jury works by appointing a “champion” for each of the album nominees, at least until the first vote chops down the selection. I was there in support of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, to champion it to the best of my abilities. It was tough, with CIUT radio’s David Dacks beside me, who had vigorously prepared arguments for the album he was there to defend. He was one articulate bugger. There was also a woman (who will remain unidentified) fiercely fighting for The Weeknd's House of Balloons.
Ten of the 11 grand jury members had been invited by Polaris Music Prize founder and executive director Steve Jordan and returning chief officer/grand jury head Liisa Ladouceur, due to each juror having put forth one of the 10 shortlisted albums as their No. 1 pick. We were required to study each album and come prepared to battle it out. The eleventh? "They're a wild card, though they can provide additional support if two to five on their ballots made the short list," explains Jordan.
That year, Arcade Fire took top prize.
"I felt a little disappointed in myself for not personally making a good enough argument to swing everyone’s judgment," Dacks laments to Billboard. "But at the same time having contributed to, I thought, a well-rounded discussion with everyone that was there that was intense but respectful at the same time. Out of the 11 people in there, at least eight or nine of them had really thoroughly done their task. They listened to everything multiple times and stepped out of their comfort zones and listened to what other arguments were being made in that room."
If anything, Dacks can be proud of himself for shedding light on the merits of a recording that others might have felt was too out-there. Perhaps strangely, I can’t reveal which album Dacks was stumping for; the Grand Jury process is all very hush-hush, and Jordan would only agree to let me go public with my own experience. (Of course, there’s no contract or penalty; it’s just trust.)
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The 9th annual Polaris Music Prize takes place tonight at a gala event at Toronto’s Carlu. The Grand Jury deliberation is in a private room on the premises, behind closed doors, while the performances and individual artist tributes are happening in the main space.
The criteria is simple. The work is judged solely on artistic merit, without consideration of genre, record sales or personal affiliation. This year's nominees must have released their records between June 1, 2013 and May 31, 2014. Up for the prize this year, a typically motley bunch: Drake, Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, Owen Pallett, Arcade Fire, Basia Bulat, Mac DeMarco, Jessy Lanza, Shad, Tanya Tagaq and Timber Timbre.
What ensues after the announcement of the winner is a lot of Monday (or Tuesday, in this case) morning quarterbacking. “They won because they’re popular.” “They won because they’re obscure.” “I knew they’d win.” “So obvious.” “They don’t need the money.” Blah-de-blah.
To put Polaris Music Prize in perspective, yes, Arcade Fire -- Grammy-winning, mainstream alternative rock band -- has won. But so has Fucked Up, the far-lesser-known hardcore band. Or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the disjointed and melancholic chamber-pop collective. Picking the winner isn't conditional on popularity, unless you have intimate knowledge of the tastes and persuasive tactics of the 11 jurors (whose names are all released prior).
Even the grand jury members do not know the winning album until it’s announced onstage -- the winner is determined by a blind vote.
Here is how it works:
Earlier in the year, a nationwide jury comprised of more than 200 -- 190 this year -- members of the Canadian music media, including journalists, bloggers, and broadcasters are asked to submit their top-five full-length albums released between June 1, 20XX and May 31, 20XX. Not all music press is asked to participate. Jordan explains “the dividing line is people who actually champion stuff over people who just do interviews or junkets or reviews of shows, but don’t have a curative aspect to what they do."
The 40 long-listed albums are then released to the public, and jurors are then asked to pick their top 5 from that list and submit for the final short list. Then Jordan and head of the Polaris jury, Exclaim editor James Keast (who replaced Ladouceur) pick 11 Grand Jury members, based on multiple criteria, which may include: east, west; radio, print; male, female, experience, age and if they specialize in a genre.
“We call it The Grand Jury Matrix,” says Jordan. “There’s a few boxes that we try to check off, but the most important issue is making sure that each one of those shortlisted records has a strong voice when it comes to that gathering.
"Just in terms of the predictability, we don’t know what they like that is on the short list but didn’t make their ballot, and what perhaps they hadn't heard yet, or had heard but hadn’t spent a lot of time with and then once we force them to, then they have an opinion. So those are things that add the unpredictability."
Jordan says you will never be asked to serve a second time.
"Every year has been really excellent, in terms of how serious everyone takes it. It’s actually quite moving how much time and energy and passion people put into the process. The objective isn’t to sway minds -- it’s just to get people listening through someone else’s ears, or trying to create the conditions for empathy with someone who may not share your taste and try and hear what they hear in something that perhaps you don’t find so appealing or even critically worthy. It’s not always successful. Sometimes people just can’t swayed.”
When I was a grand juror in 2011, the Gala was still staged at the Masonic Temple (it has since been sold), a space built in 1918 by the Freemasons. We deliberated in the Scottish Rite room, which had a perimeter of gothic thrones. It was like being a member of the Loyal Order of Moose or the Freemasons or, for you TV buffs, the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes Lodge No. 26, or the Stonecutters, only without the rituals and secret passwords. Also, women are allowed.
The night before, we had all met over dinner. We had been asked to come prepared, having listened numerous times to all the albums. We would make our arguments then. Dacks tells me now he listened to the 10 albums at least 10 times and in various situations. “I wanted to hear it walking around with earbuds. I wanted to hear it on a proper stereo. I wanted to hear it in a car,” he says.
That “Epic Dinner” was implemented after that first year of Polaris, because the grand jurors felt they simply did not have enough time together. “We were basically thrown in a room on the night of the gala and many of us hadn’t met each other before,” recalls Keast, who sat on the grand jury in 2006. “The pre-jury dinner gives people more of a relaxed opportunity to air out all 10 records, without the pressure of votes.”
“We tell people to prepare and bring all the records with them on their iPod or phone or whatever device and after the dinner, quite often, without any prompting from us, people spend the next day re-listening after hearing some of the arguments from the night before,” says Jordan.
While some voices became raised in my year, it was, as Dacks said, respectful. One person had over-imbibed at the dinner and tended to talk over some of us, but the night of the Gala -- and the vote -- there were no incidents. Not like one year, which almost escalated into a fight. “There were threats and I got a text from Liisa Ladouceur, who was running the jury saying, ‘I need help,’” recalls Jordan (Ladouceur is on this year’s grand jury). “Of course alcohol was involved. I think I made everyone do a group hug.”
During the grand jury, an immediate blind vote off the top whittles the 10 albums down to five. Then, after an hour or so of discussion, another blind vote further trims it down to three.
Keast, who refers to himself as Grand Jury Wrangler, says he is in the room the entire time, but rarely finds a need to step in. “There tends to be two or three people who are self-policing. I want to be hands off. I don’t want to moderate the conversation and I don’t want to chair the meeting. I want them to let it take their own shape."
“I am there to make sure there is serious consideration to the music on its merits and to make sure that somebody doesn’t get bullied out of an opinion and can feel like they can speak freely. Sometimes, you’ll get a more boisterous personality that takes over the conversation and I might step in.”
When the final vote is cast and everyone is sent out to join the revelers, they don’t know who the winner is either. And that’s what makes Polaris Music Prize as mysterious and fair an outcome of all Canada’s music awards.
"One of the best parts about doing Polaris is the emails I get from people after they've served, saying that it’s been a highlight of their career and it’s restored their faith in music and just all sorts of awesome things,” says Jordan. “It’s like the world’s most intense summer camp for music for 48 hours."