A music prize for everybody in the audience

New Northern Ireland music prize makes its debut

’Weird thing’: Polaris winners GodSpeed You! Black Emperor

’Weird thing’: Polaris winners GodSpeed You! Black Emperor


Just what we need: another big Irish music prize. Irish bands (on the island of Ireland) are already eligible for both the Mercury Music Prize and the Choice Prize but now those artistically resident within Northern Ireland can also have a swing at the newly minted Northern Irish Music Prize.

Taking place during this year’s Belfast Music Week (Nov 11-17), 14 bands have been shortlisted for the award with And So I Watch You From Afar and Two Door Cinema Club being the joint favourites.

This completes the jigsaw for Irish and British musicians. We now have not just the Mercury and The Choice but the Scottish Music Prize, the Welsh Music Prize and the Norn Iron Music Prize.

All of these are direct descendants of the Mercury, which after being set up in 1992 spawned copy-cat awards in France (Prix Constantin), Australia, Canada (The Polaris) and the U.S. (The Shortlist Prize). Are they working? Not really. The Mercury has become a parody of itself, the French one hasn’t been around for a few years now, the U.S. one threw in the towel in 2007. And there’s been trouble with the Canadian one this year.

This year’s winners - the brilliant GodSpeed You! Black Emperor - who didn’t turn up to receive their prize - released a statement saying that “holding a musical gala during a time of austerity and normalised decline is a weird thing to do” and that the very notion of a music award “just so musicians can compete with each other for a novelty-sized cheque doesn’t serve the cause of righteous music of all”. They said they were using the approx €20,000 first prize to buy musical instruments for prisoners in Quebec prisons.

And there was more, noting that the music prize had been sponsored by car manufacturer Toyota - “during a summer where the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the internet” they asked “if the point of this prize and party is acknowledging music - labour performed in the name of something other than quick money - then maybe the next celebration should happen without the corporate banners and cultural overlords”.

You can argue amongst yourselves whether Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s decision to accept the award (as opposed to rejecting it) better served their mission purpose. Either way they scored a few direct hits on the modern phenomenon that is the Music Prize.

Do these affairs better serve the interests of the sponsors/organisers/hangers-on or the bands involved? Who gets the “profile”, whose agenda is pushed? You hear a lot of sanctimonious talk about “platform”, “exposure”, “emerging talent” and “spotlights being shone” but given that the judging panels at these affairs are usually made up of “Music industry insiders” (i.e. people you would cross the road to avoid) do they have any musical/aesthetic/careerist validity at all or is it just the Scene that Celebrates Itself on a night out?

The only one of them that ever really made any sense was the U.S. Shortlist prize as that dispensed with the regionalism of the others and awarded the prize to the best album released in the U.S. that had sold fewer than 500,000 copies at the time of nomination. Before the prize bit the dust at least it brought winners such as Sigur Ros and Sufjan Stevens to wider attention.

These islands now have a grand total of five music prizes (four of them region-specific). If they resurrect the Yoplait Song Contest there’ll soon be more music prizes than bands in this country.

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