Judging panel should keep Choice real

Wed, Mar 7, 2012, 00:00

WHILE THERE CAN be a self-conscious, overly earnest and cultural snobbery aspect to awards that emphasise artistic merit over cash-till takings, they still fulfil a fundamental and necessary role in shining a light into the dark, unrecognised corners of literature, music and drama and, more often than not, their findings can prove enlightening.

Tomorrow, Ireland’s own “alternative” music prize, the Choice Music Prize (now sponsored by Meteor), takes place at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre with an overall winner to be announced from a 10-strong shortlist that was announced in January. With a prize of €10,000 for the winner, the Choice is looking for the best Irish album of the year “based on artistic merit, regardless of genre, sales or record label”. It is judged by a panel of industry professionals, journalists and DJs.

With past winners that include where-are-they-now Super Extra Bonus Party (who won the award in 2007) and others who didn’t quite parlay their prize into any sense of a significant breakthrough here or abroad, does the Choice Music Prize really matter to anyone outside a media in-crowd? Can the Choice really deliver on the promises it proclaimed when it was set-up in 2005?

It matter on this level: Cashier No 9 are the best new Irish band in an age. Having their coruscating To The Death Of Funalbum on this year’s shortlist gives them exposure and a platform.

They’re picking up radio play and column inches on the back of their nomination and their inspired mix of Madchester baggy and a Laurel Canyon sound is reaching more ears and winning over new fans at almost every turn.

The favourite to win this year’s Choice prize, Cashier No 9 represent what these type of awards should be all about: broadening horizons and singling out excellence.

The Choice matters to Pugwash – another of this year’s nominated acts. Thomas Walsh (like Paul Cleary and Stephen Ryan before him) is one of those great Dublin songwriters who has never really been given a clear run at glory. The nomination for their The Olympus Soundalbum may just – in the maddeningly erratic and eccentric music world – reach someone who is in a position to alter their career path for the better.

And there are eight other equally valid stories on this year’s 10-strong shortlist. And that is really all awards such as the Choice music prize are about.

Dave Reid, the founder and organiser of the Choice, says: “The award was set up in 2005 to raise awareness of Irish music both here and abroad – in that sense I believe we have succeeded. It is a marketing project and it’s important to focus on each year’s 10-strong shortlist and not on any individual winner, as what the winners do with their career afterwards is up to them.”

Reid rejects claims that the Choice is too obscure/commercially insignificant and an ultimately meaningless love-in for the Irish indie scene.

“Mainstream acts such as The Script and Snow Patrol have been shortlisted in the past; and from my own point of view, of the three really great indie Irish albums of recent years, I’ve only seen one of them nominated,” he says.

It is easy to look at certain past winners and ask: What have they done since? Reid says this argument is irrelevant. “The job of the prize is to highlight quality music that otherwise might well go ignored and if people really want to see concrete results, you can point to the fact that all the nominated acts over the years find that their airplay has improved, they get more gig bookings, and are more likely to make appearances at major festival events. In terms of what it’s worth, a few years ago we looked at the total media coverage of the 10 shortlisted acts and found that the media spend would have amounted to €250,000. That is quite a significant amount.”

Given the nature of the prize – wherein overall musical merit counts for everything and potential commercial appeal counts for nothing – it is unlikely that any Choice winner will go on to have a multi-platinum-selling career and can tour around the world’s enormodomes.

If you look at past winners of the Mercury Music Prize (on which the Choice is modelled), you’ll find that some of their overall winners, such as Roni Size and Talvin Singh, actually diminished in stature afterwards.

And therein lies a core problem with this type of “alterno” prize. Roni Size’s album (which isn’t very good) won over Radiohead’s OK Computer(generally regarded as one of the best British albums of all time).

At the 2006 Choice Music Prize, Snow Patrol were nominated for their Eyes Openalbum. Rapturously received by many critics, it was the biggest-selling album in the UK that year and has gone on to sell more than five million copies worldwide.

It lost out that night in Vicar Street to the Divine Comedy’s Victory for the Common Muse– a very strong work from a superb musician – but is such a result perhaps more indicative of a judging panel hung-up on notions of “cool” and “cred”?

David Bowie and Van Morrison have been nominated for a Mercury but have not won – but The Klaxons and Speech Debelle have. And cast your eyes abroad where Canada has a similar prize to the Choice called The Polaris. A few years ago Arcade Fire (one of the best bands of their generation) lost out to someone called Patrick Watson (me neither).

You can point the finger at the “media professionals” who are rounded up to judge these affairs. Yes, the very nature of the award entails that you should look beyond front covers/chart sales/career to date but that doesn’t mean you should move so far towards the other end of the spectrum that you vote for the most commercially repellent work. Or an act who is only “happening” for a self-styled “media elite”.

This year’s Choice shortlist is one of the strongest ever. Here’s hoping the judging panel drop the “alt” and keep it real.

How was it for you? Previous winners give their views

Adrian Crowley

Season of the Sparks(2009)

“The award has established itself so firmly already that anyone who makes it on to the shortlist sees a jump in exposure, I think. My audience was extended with more people coming to the shows on discovering my music as a result of the award. I’ve noticed the repercussions abroad, too. It has helped in all aspects of what I do once I put my music out there. For instance in the UK and France I’ve noticed promoters, curators and radio hosts all making reference to the win at some point when I’m out in the field. Also, the licencees in different territories definitely picked up on it.

“It’s always hard to pinpoint what exactly lead to what though, and I mostly keep my head down but I can safely say it was and is a big help professionally.”

Richie Egan, Jape

Ritual(2008)

“Winning The Choice meant I was able to continue to make music and pay the rent for a while after, and I could buy a pre amp and microphone to help with recordings.

“Winning the prize made some ears prick up around us for a while – even some pricks’ ears!”

Julie Feeney

13 Songs(inaugural winner in 2005)

“It was a wonderful feeling that I will never forget. I was at the time coming directly from the classical world into the pop world with a self-produced album that I released on a shoestring and I didn’t know anybody in the ‘new world’ so it was wonderful to win a competition that judged purely music. I owe a lot to that debut album. Without a doubt it carries a great weight, particularly abroad, but it’s only one piece in a big jigsaw. You need many jigsaw pieces to make the picture: your live show; your writing; your searching as an artist; your stamina; not to mention the business pieces of the jigsaw. The music business is not for the faint-hearted.”