Polaris Prize Founder Talks New Rules After Jury Discussions Began 'Teetering' Into Personal Jabs

Carly Rae Jepsen
Liz Ramanand

Carly Rae Jepsen performs at Shadow of the City festival on June 18, 2016. 

Canada's Polaris Music Prize, the annual award for Canada's best album -- the 2016 winner will be announced tonight at a gala in Toronto -- is unlike any other music prize. The vetted national jury pool of about 200 active music media members are expected to have intelligent debate and considerable familiarity with the albums they suggest and pick for their long and short lists.

The jurors, which Polaris Music Prize founder Steve Jordan calls "music filters," are people who passionately recommend Canadian music in their blogs or radio shows or newspaper beats or other media outlets. Every year, about 15 to 20 people are replaced because they change jobs or no longer feel qualified to vote.  "The most important thing is we see regular engagement," says Jordan of vetting the jurors.

The criteria for the Canadian album of the year is there is no criteria: no sales or chart position; no regard to genre. Unlike the Juno Awards, titles are not submitted with a fee. It's completely subjective, although stringently backed up with a personal why. Many of the 192 Polaris jurors -- especially the 11-member grand jury, which determines the winner behind closed doors by a blind voting process the night of the gala -- study the albums back to front, music, lyrics, songwriting, musicianship and production, and are ready to back up their picks. 

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There is a private Google group for jurors to do just that: make their faves known. 

A year ago, one new (and short-lived) juror took exception to his treatment on the private forum and wrote an article for Canadaland, stating "Discussions about music were a distant second to bullying and overblown egos."  Rules were put in place this eligibility year, requiring jurors to make at least one album suggestion to the group or respond to another's, and banning negative opinion on these records — or they could be dropped from the jury. 

"What we implemented this year was not a direct reaction to the Canadaland piece," Jordan says. "It was a reaction to something that was bothering us for a couple of years, which is the lack of participation on behalf of a lot of the jury members, and because Polaris selects records from the discussion that we have, when you have people that aren't really participating we needed to know why.

"We got a bunch of different answers back, but one of the main things they didn't like were the personal attacks and tone that seemed to be prevalent in the group -- because by and large the discussions seemed to be completely respectful -- but things did seem to be teetering into the personal.  We just swung the pendulum back the other way. We're only going to talk about what people like and only positive comments will be allowed.

"We're in the process of reviewing that right now to see what everyone thought about that approach and we'll see what happens," Jordan says of a survey that went out three weeks ago.

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Some less thin-skinned jurors who get a kick out of the debates didn't like the change. In February, Joshua Ostroff, senior editor, Huffington Post Canada, started a closed "Polaris Prize Offsite Board" on Facebook "because the other group was no longer allowed to have debates on it and I enjoy debating music with my fellow music critics," he tells Billboard.

"To be honest, I didn't think the other one was all that much of a problem. Critics talk to each other the way critics talk to each other. But not everybody on the jury are music critics and some people were offended by critical comments. I thought it was ironic because what ended up becoming a big deal because of Canadaland was the discussion about Viet Cong's name, which was an important discussion to have and never would've happened if it had been with the current rules."    

The main Polaris board now acts as a way to nominate albums. The Facebook Group — which only has 55 members, a little more than a quarter of the jury pool — is where anything goes.

Ultimately, when the short list is announced, there are always complaints: not enough hip hop; not enough females; not enough francophone or too much hip hop, too many females, too much francophone, whatever it happens to be that year. For the record, winners since Polaris was established in 2006 have included a punk band (Fucked Up), a Grammy winning band (Arcade Fire), a throat singer (Tanya Tagaq) and a Francophone band (Karkwa), which is about as unpredictable as it gets.

Jordan listens to all the feedback and tries to make adjustments to the jury pool, if warranted. More francophone jurors were added this year, he says, but it turns out many voted for Anglo titles. More females, for instance, won't ensure more female artists get nominated, despite what some jurors and others have voiced.

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"We pride ourselves on listening to people's concerns," says Jordan. "We still need to have people from those communities represented on our jury."  The jury pool is "constantly evolving," taking into consideration "gender, style of music, regions and all of those other things that we want to make sure are represented.

"We never want to do anything to engineer a result. That's a fool's game. People are quite right when you say you're never going to make everyone happy. You're never going to be able to address everyone's concern on one short list. 

Johnnie Regalado, the author of the Canadaland piece, and station manager at CFUV 101.9 FM, has heard about the new rules but declined to comment for this story.

Since Polaris has become an important and prestigious award in Canada, a prize based entirely on artistic merit, Billboard also reached out to the heads of all the major labels and a couple of Canadian indies to find out if they had a Polaris strategy. Publicists have been known to send out releases asking jurors to consider a title for Polaris.

"We don't have what I'd call a strategy," says Warner Music Canada president Steve Kane, "and that may be a result of me having served on the Polaris Prize Board of Directors for 10 years. I believe Polaris should be free of lobbying and perhaps naively I hope others feel the same way. Now that said, if one of our records make the Shortlist, we use the nomination in all of our marketing and promotional efforts including making sure that journalists and potential jurors refresh their familiarity with the album."

Joel Carriere of Dine Alone Records, says, simply, "Begging for votes isn't a strategy, it's desperate. We aren't desperate."

The other two majors did not respond and Arts & Crafts opted not to comment. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Billboard contributor Karen Bliss has been a Polaris Music Prize juror since its inception and has served on the grand jury.


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