Canada’s juried Polaris Music Prize Short List nominees were announced today in Toronto. 213 members of the Canadian music media vote on the ten albums, up for the $30,000 (CAD) grand prize. On September 19th in Toronto, a small sequestered jury will duke it out to determine the Best Canadian Album released between June 1, 2010 and May 31, 2011. The nine runners up will each receive $2000.
In alphabetical order, the 2011 10 finalists are: Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs;” Austra’s “Feel It Break;” Braids’ “Native Speaker;” Destroyer’s “Kaputt;” Galaxie’s “Tigre et Diesel;” Hey Rosetta!’s “Seeds;” Ron Sexsmith’s “Long Player Late Bloomer¨Colin Stetson’s “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges;” Timber Timbre’s “Creep On Creepin’ On;” and The Weeknd’s “House Of Balloons.”
Now in its sixth year, Polaris founder and executive director Steve Jordan, who previously worked in A&R for Warner Music Canada then True North Records, talked to Billboard.biz about launching the prize, its intention and the criticisms. He runs Polaris, a not-for-profit company, full-time.
BILLBOAR.BIZ: What was the process to launch the Polaris Music Prize?
STEVE JORDAN: When I had the idea and started to circulate it with management, labels and promoters and the artists themselves, I got really positive feedback. But to get everybody onboard takes a long time.
What was the idea you presented?
A critics-selected cash prize for Album of the Year, similar but not exactly the same as the [U.K’s Barclaycard] Mercury Prize.
We have a lot of music awards in Canada, why did the industry want this?
I think they liked that it wasn’t sales based. The major labels have been unfairly dissed for not liking music. All the people running the majors in this country are music fans. It’s a struggle to put out music that isn’t obviously commercial and they all saw a future in helping to give a leg up to records that weren’t obviously commercial but may have a longer shelf life.
How does it differ from the Juno Awards in terms of politics or artistic criteria?
I don’t know that it differs greatly in artistic criteria and whenever you have people involved selecting an award, there’s going to be politics. What we set out to do differently than the Junos is exclude the industry from voting. There are a lot of people in the industry, myself included, who listen to a lot of music and have their own interesting tastes, but it’s more the appearance of bias, based on picking something on your ballot that you’re being paid to promote. So by eliminating that, we can make the claim that the people doing the selecting are doing it for purely musical reasons.
Artist Buck 65 is also a broadcaster, and some of the other jurors are in bands, manage or own labels — you can’t get away from it.
You can’t get away from it, but we’re very clear. Buck voluntarily left the jury when he knew he had a record coming out. The others, like [CBC Radio’s] Jian Ghomeshi, who manages LIGHTS, we’re very clear you cannot put that person on your ballot or you’ll be kicked off the jury. Furthermore, you can’t mention an artist that you’re involved with in any of the discussions we have internally.
This year, the prize has increased from $20,000 to $30,000 and $2000 will be given to each of the short-list nominees. Why the change?
We’ve been looking at increasing the prize for years and trying to bring it in line with other international prizes like the Mercury [£20,000] and the [Scotiabank] Giller Prize [$50,000 CAD] for books in Canada. The purpose isn’t to help struggling musicians; the purpose of giving out prize money is to focus attention on that record. The $2000 prize is from Gary Slaight from Slaight Music. He’s been a big supporter every year, and he simply said, ‘We should give your nominees money too.’
How do you answer the charge that the Polaris nominees take away from artists who the world might view as our top artists – our Celines, Avrils and Biebers?
So you don’t think Arcade Fire or Feist are some of our top artists?
They are, but they haven’t sold in the millions.
It’s a critics’ award. It’s not based on sales, so if our jury isn’t selecting certain records – i.e. Celine, Bieber – it’s not because they’re popular; it’s because they don’t like the records. But they are in no way directed to not vote for popular artists.
What have the criticisms been?
A lot of criticisms have been based on people feeling they were excluded; but, what tends to happen, is the following year, without us ever doing anything about it, those things get addressed. For instance, I was told that a French artist will never win and then a French artist won [Karkwa]. I was told that Polaris ignores hardcore music and then a hardcore band won [Fucked Up]. Before we even put the Prize on, people thought it was bullshit because a popular band Metric was on the short list but then Metric didn’t win.
“One of the criticisms I remember getting was that Polaris only picks winners who have no international potential. But I was in Dublin about four months ago and walked into Tower Records and saw Caribou’s last two Polaris-nominated records on their [Essential Music] rack, along with all the top releases. I took a picture and kept browsing. Then Caribou came on the in-house system so I went up to the counter and I said, ‘Are you a fan?’ and he said, ‘We’re all fans at this store. We love Caribou.’
The fact that there’s criticism means it’s a good thing; it means that we’re at the centre of a conversation about what constitutes good and what doesn’t. There are two ways of looking at things: There’s ‘only million sellers are important to the industry and Polaris has not really embraced million sellers and, therefore, it has no value;’ that’s a really narrow view of music and what it can be and what it does for people. In an increasingly fragmented world, what Polaris offers is a critics-approved filter. We don’t say to people that you’re going to love all of these records. What we do say is they’ve been carefully selected and we’ve waded through a lot of records to get to that point. You don’t have to like them but you should pay attention to them.”