Jan 16 2014

Polaris Prize 2013

Their mission statement reads; The Polaris Music Prize is a not-for-profit organization that annually honors, celebrates and rewards creativity and diversity in Canadian recorded music by recognizing, then marketing the albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history, as judged by a panel of selected music critics.

That all sounds pretty nice. The 2013 award was (I guess now not so) recently given out and the winner was Montreal’s, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for their creation, ‘Allelua! Don’t Bend! Ascend! a very worthy winner despite the band’s 15-year old girl-like fetish for exclamation points. They are exactly the type of artists who SHOULD be celebrated in an award like this. Their music is challenging, exhilarating-something you are very unlikely to ever hear on the radio, they never hype themselves in the press and appear in every way to be true artists.

I’m here neither to praise nor condemn Godspeed, You Black Emperor. The story, for those who don’t know, is that they refused the accolade and took the opportunity to basically take the piss out of the event and then promised to give the 30 grand prize money to inmates for instruments. They also sort of shamed the awards for giving out money at a gala dinner during a “time of austerity”.

I’m of two minds about this. On one hand, the whole idea of awards for musicians has always seemed odd. You get an award every night when people clap after your songs. When you get paid for a gig or get a royalty cheque. People tell you how great you are in a way that most people never experience. People write about you, take your picture, treat you like you are special. There are rewards aplenty in the music world. Plus, awards in the music world rarely translate into anything else. No one seems to know or care who won an award a week after it is awarded. Awards are for things like sport, where the award is the whole reason for doing the sport. Music is not a sport and in that, I am in full agreement with Godspeed.

And also, it’s nice to see an artist who actually seems to believe in something other than fame and money. That’s the inspiring part of the story.

Here’s the part that bothers me. Many people complain about awards and award shows in the mainstream, awards that they believe most independent artists have little or no access to. Then an award appears that rewards musicians outside the mainstream and now even that is bad? The Polaris Prize recognizes artists for merit, as unquantifiable as that may be, instead of sales and good styling. The money in this award reminds me of the money paid out for literary awards. It has real value to the winner who is typically and gloriously underpaid.

I also have an issue with them taking the money. They say they are going to make a donation to buy instruments for inmates. Real humility would have had them accept the award graciously and then quietly hand the money over to charity. Some people say they should have taken themselves out of the mix once they had been nominated. Maybe they hoped they wouldn’t win and it would go away by itself. I might have thought that.

Now, a bunch of people now have to feel bad about something that would ordinarily make them feel good. The organizers, the board of directors, the judges and the sponsors of the award now are faced with the thought that they are doing something wrong by trying to celebrate excellence in alternative music. Even crapping on Toyota seems mean here. They, again, are putting their sponsorship dough into an event that many expect a big company would avoid. And on another day, they would be criticized for not sponsoring something like this. It’s like when people criticized Loblaws for their Green campaign as a for profit gimmick just as harshly as they would have been criticized for NOT being green. It’s like cool people will never give nerds a break no matter how hard the nerds might try to do the right thing.

Here’s the short of it. When people have something important to say about something, my visceral reaction is, who gives a shit. We live in a culture where everyone thinks they have something important to say and almost no one does. And talking about prize money during a time of austerity? If we want to get political and talk about real social change, what are the avenues for doing that? Is one of them pissing on some pretty well intentioned people who want to reward musicians who have done something cool? Really? I guess you use whatever platform is available to you and if you can influence your fans to think a certain way, then I guess you go for it. But you can do that through the things you control, like your music, your concerts, your website-your direct contact with your fans who sort of have a choice as to whether they are on a date with you or not. But that only works if those fans work for change in other ways, through changing mass public consciousness or through the political process.

Here’s what really happened. The 2013 Polaris Prize has been sullied without them having any say in it. They gave the award to Godspeed! because Godspeed! is awesome and now that was a big fucking mistake.

I really hate the music business.