Heritage Prize, New Addition to Polaris, Wants to Celebrate Classic Canadians

Fin Costello/Redferns
Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee of Rush

Every year the Polaris Music Prize crowns a Canadian album annually as the year’s best, recently honoring Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Now Polaris founder and executive director Steve Jordan has created the inaugural "Slaight Family Heritage Prize," which will honor beloved Canadian albums from the '60s through the '00s.

That means classics by Rush, Bryan Adams, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Jane Siberry, Stompin’ Tom, Alannah Myles, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen could be up against titles by Thrush Hermit, Jale, D.O.A., Chalk Circle, Bootsauce, Luba and Dayglo Abortions. Except for this prize, the nominees are determined via industry jury, and the winners selected by public vote.

“There’s so much great music from over the years that has been impactful to what is going on in today’s music," sponsor Gary Slaight of Slaight Music tells Billboard, "so I wanted to find a way to pay tribute to some of the great Canadian artists that have led the way over the years. Polaris is all about new, so this is trying to connect to the old and meaningful.”

Jordan isn’t aware of a similar prize elsewhere in the world, but says the Heritage Prize is modeled on various music and sports halls of fame “to some degree. It stems from jury members and just bar discussions on what would have been nominated for Polaris if it was around in ’83 or ’92 or 2001,” Jordan says.

Criteria are the same as the Polaris Music Prize: the albums are of the highest artistic integrity, without regard for musical genre, professional affiliation or sales history.

The difference is in the jury process. Whereas the Polaris Music Prize is selected by 196 members of the current music media nationwide, the jury for the Slaight Family Heritage Prize will consists of 25 people from current and past Polaris juries, as well as former members of the Canadian music media and Canadian music historians, who will determine the five short listed albums per era.

To jog some memories and to assist in the process, Polaris has compiled a list of about 100 titles for each era, which they will give to the 25 jurors.

“It’s a discussion starter, not a list to pick from, “ says Jordan, “but a list of everything that’s either been on a year-end poll, nominated for an award, any album that has had any kind of recognition either through Junos, Les Disques, Canadian Country Music Awards, any kind of Canadian awards, but also Billboard year-end lists, Rolling Stone critics poll, the Pazz & Jop poll, Spin, NME, any kind of year-end lists that has some Canadian albums.”

After a good “three weeks of discussion,” the jurors will submit their top 5 picks for each era, which will be announced via press release on Sept. 18, then the public does the rest.  Voting is open until Oct. 5 at polarismusicprize.ca. The winners will be announced on Oct. 9.

If the public is voting, doesn’t that make the chances of, say, an album by Dayglo Abortions, or Pure, or even Jane Siberry winning pretty remote? Wouldn’t the public at large vote for the biggest or most popular artists?

“To clarify, the criteria applies to the short list,” says Jordan. “In our view, ‘the public’ isn’t just people who buy or stream the most popular things. They also read record reviews, are adventurous in their tastes, and follow what Polaris is doing.

“We will encourage the public voters to actually listen to the nominees and pick based on what they hear. There’s no easy way of guaranteeing that they’ll do that, of course, but we’d finally like to offer the people who have followed what we do closely to have their say. We think it’s more likely that they’ll determine the outcome than a popular artist who motivates their fan base to vote.”

Jordan is also working with programmers at Toronto venues Roy Thomson Hall/ Massey Hall to produce a tribute concert to the four winning albums sometime in early 2016.  “It depends what they are. It could be performances by the actual artists or it could having a house band with rotating guests,” says Jordan. “We don’t want to commit to the format until we know who the nominees are. And it doesn’t mean that the show will be at Massey Hall but we’ll just have their programming team work with us on putting those shows together.”

Winners will receive a special trophy at the tribute show.  Commemorative prints of each winning album will also be made available for purchase to the public. There is no monetary prize for Slaight Family Heritage Prize, unlike with the Polaris Music Prize which is provided by Slaight.

“I hope that there’s a spike in the discovery in some of the more undiscovered things or even the popular things because there are new generations that are perhaps tuned into Polaris that aren’t aware of the history as much as they’d like to be,” says Jordan.