Polaris Prize Founder Touts Community Development Program as Way to Boost Diversity: 'It Was a Very White Event for Years'

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Dustin Rabin
Steve Jordan, Polaris Music Prize founder.

The Polaris Music Prize, the criteria-less media-juried award that declares the best Canadian album each year, has been adding offshoot initiatives since it was created in 2006.

There's a whole other set of awards, the Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize; a podcast; collaboration sessions, and cover sessions. Then, less than a week before the 2018 gala on Sept. 17, Polaris announced a partnership with non-profit trade organization Music Canada for what they're calling The Polaris Community Development Program.

The goals is "to support and develop the music community by eliminating barriers to access for engaged music creators, entrepreneurs and change makers." The gesture was spearheaded by Polaris event and admin manager Claire Dagenais, who saw that marginalized groups were being left out of the "very white event," as Polaris founder and executive director Steve Jordan told Billboard.

Polaris had already made a conscious and successful effort to boost its representation of women in the music media jury pool, increasing it to 44 percent (there were 191 voting members in total this year).

Essentially, The Polaris Community Development Program is a fancy way of saying they gave tickets to 10 music-focused community groups to attend the Polaris Music Prize gala. They were also invited to meet with members of the Canadian music industry, including the jurors, for 15 minutes (it went longer) during the reception, and discover that we're not so scary and intimidating after all.

The 10 community groups in attendance were ArtsCan Circle, Art Starts, Honey Jam, Manifesto, Native Women in the Arts, Rise Edutainment, Singing OUT, The Remix Project, UrbanArts and Sistema Toronto.  Forty-one tickets were given out in total, roughly four each.

Steve Jordan explained to Billboard why giving tickets away and meeting some people is worthy of a all the attention.

Why add another element to your Polaris Music Prize plate?

Claire identified to us that there might be a bit of a barrier to access for certain marginalized communities and arts communities and wanted to try and rectified that a bit. There is a tendency that some might find it a bit prohibitive, especially if they're not-for-profit arts groups.

Do you mean in terms of attendance at the gala because you made a conscious decision with outreach the past couple of years to make sure the jury pool has the best representation?

It was a very white event for a number of years. We were starting to see that turn but especially when it comes to non-indie rock, it helps to have people representing those orgs, just be in the room and see what we are attempting to celebrate. And it benefits us because we're making those groups aware that we're accessible to them in terms of recognizing certain kinds of music and it can help us, hopefully, in the future access some people who can participate in the jury as well.

The gala seems to be attended by the "same old gang," you could say. Do you think it's a larger issue that people don't know how to access the industry and infiltrate it?

Yes, that's there to some degree. Sometimes people just are so used to feeling unwelcome, or not recognized. People are dominated by a certain kind of voice to invite and bring people into the fold.

As an arts award, it does encapsulate every style of music and different artists have won from different areas, genres, sexes and cultures. There are many events that give tickets to people and that's the end of that. But you put a name to it, Community Development Program, and released a press release. Will it be more than attending the show for four hours and meeting a few people?

Yeah. I'm just getting it off the ground. We had to give it a name because Music Canada support the objectives as well to have inclusion. We wanted to see how people reacted to it and we'll obviously do some follow up with some of those groups, but the initial feedback was great just to be included. Right now, we're just going to assess it, see what more we can do. Really, It's just about establishing communication and relations with those kind of groups.

Could it be a bigger, maybe year-long thing?

Right now we're limited. We just don't have the budget to bring groups from outside of the GTA [Greater Toronto Area]. So this is pretty focused on the GTA. The first year we'll access how it was received, how useful it was for people. It's certainly something we can look at extending across the country if we can find a way to fund that.

Do you think it was worthy of a press release?

I think so because people were talking about it. At a certain point you go, "What's the point of doing something if you're not going to tell anybody about it?" We could have just kept it as a thing that we're handing out tickets, but it does have a purpose and there is a reason why we're doing it and I think people need to hear those reasons. People need to know the purpose so that other organization who might be looking at us will maybe do the same thing.

How did you select the 10 organizations?

We consulted with Music Canada. They had some organizations that they were aware of or had done some work with. We just did our own research and looked at who was around the GTA could possibly even make it. It really was nothing beyond that and just making sure it would identify as being marginalized, either in terms of the culture or the people involved in the culture.

Claire came up with the idea somewhere in March, April, May. We're a small operation, so we're tasked with doing a lot. So it had to be something that we could manage with our limited resources. But what's one of the resources we have? A space at an event and an event that brings people together. So if the true objective of having a gala like that is to bring people together, who are we missing? Who are we missing that's involved in music culture, who don't have the budgets to overcome the barriers of participating?

Lastly, it seemed like everyone was pretty excited that Jeremy Dutcher won. I didn't see any griping online, like in past years. Did you?

[laughs] Not on socials, but I've always said that almost no matter who we picked, one-tenth of the followers will be happy with it and nine-tenths will either grumble publicly or privately. But yeah, I will say this year I sensed support from the other nominees that it was a good call for the jury to make.  What a fantastic winner, fantastic speech…

Fantastic cape.

Yeah. Fantastic cape. And he's a classically trained musician. What I will say about the selection of Jeremy is it does what I think Polaris will do best when it's really working is it selects something that kind of defies genre. We get asked all the time, "If you're regardless of genre, how are you making sure certain genres are included?" I always come back with "Regardless of genre, so that things that don't fit neatly into any category will also be recognized." And this record [Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa] definitely does that.