The right to choose
A lot of rot has been written about the Meteor Choice Music Prize but it’s really just about highlighting the best Irish album of the year, writes JIM CARROLLin this all-you- need-to-know guide, free of buzzwords (ok, maybe a few)
IN THE BEGINNING . . .
This is the bit where the writer declares an interest. In 2005, I was approached by music promoter and Kilkennyman Dave Reid with an idea for an Irish album prize and decided to get involved. Until April 2010, I was the chairman of the judging panel and one of the project’s co-ordinators. The former meant I kept the judges in order on the night and the latter entailed dealing with everything from the bands and the venue to coming up with Machiavellian PR scams and being diplomatic with the people who gave us the money for the prize fund.
Some of the above tasks were easy, some were downright difficult and I’ll leave it to you to work out which was which. David and I parted on friendly terms in 2010 after five hugely successful events and he recruited Tony Clayton-Lea of this parish as the new chairman.
BUT ENOUGH ABOUT YOU. WHAT THE HELL IS THE CHOICE MUSIC PRIZE?
Look, a lot of utter rot has been spoken and written about the Choice Music Prize. More nonsense is added to the pile every year. A lot of energy is expended trying to work out what it’s all about, the different agendas at play and how it all works. And yes, I’ve done my bit to stoke things up.
Let’s start with what it is. It’s a prize to highlight the best Irish album releases of any given year featuring a list drawn up by a bunch of media people. You have print journalists, radio broadcasters, online hacks and behind-the-scenes people coming together to select a shortlist and, on the night, pick a winner. It’s basically the GAA All-Stars for lads and lasses with guitars, keyboards, drums, synths and assorted other instruments.
But what puzzles people the most is how these judges decide which albums from the hundreds released in any year are worthy of selection and, then, which of the shortlisted albums gets the grand prize. It’s the topic that raises the most ire and causes the most fuming when discussions turn to Choice.
The answer? It comes down to the judges. As plain and simple as that. Every year, a new panel of judges is recruited and asked to make their selections. Each of them picks 10 albums released in any given year which they’re happy to stand over. It’s a totally personal choice and based on their own likes, dislikes, preferences and prejudices. They are asked to pick their 10 favourite Irish albums and this, we have to assume, is what we get. When you put their 10 albums together with the selections of the other judges, you get the overall list. Yes, it’s a consensus, but what did you expect?
WHAT HAS THE CHOICE MUSIC PRIZE EVER DONE FOR US ANYWAY?
You mean aside from adding to the gaiety of the nation every year as people go bonkers giving out about the acts and albums who make or miss the shortlist? The thing about the prize is that we never really thought all that much about what it could do at the very start.
We just wanted to hold an event which would highlight Irish releases at a time of year when there was nothing going on. (You had the Meteor Music Awards, which were as dull as dishwater.)
What the prize has done – and this was never planned – is to give acts who make the cut an increased profile at home and occasionally abroad. I’ve lost count of the number of acts who’ve said to me that being on the shortlist meant getting radio sessions or print interviews or gigs or stuff they would never have got in other circumstances. I always remember Messiah J The Expert saying that the Choice nod for their Now This I Have to Hearalbum in 2006 led to people taking their calls who had avoided them up to then.
Yes, acts see increases in sales. Yes, bookers book ’em for bigger and better shows. Yes, they can use the “shortlisted for Choice Music Prize” line in their press releases forevermore.
But most of all, the prize has shown the sheer quality and quantity of homegrown music. We might have all gone on about this before, but the prize demonstrates it year in and year out.
WHY HAS THE PRIZE SUCCEEDED AND KEPT GOING?
Everyone has their own theory on this and mine is that the prize succeeds because the bands dig it. From the very first year, it was clear that the acts were the ones who saw the value in it and, in the words of the marketing department, bought into it to become shareholders in the event.
Yeah, I know. Apologies for that swerve into buzzword bingo world.
But that’s the main reason, I think, why it has worked so well to date. From the very start, the bands were up for it. They wanted to be shortlisted, they wanted to play the live event and they wanted to be part of it.
Sometimes, managers and the like initially said no to taking part in the live event, but there would be some negotiations, a bit of diplomacy (not by me, obviously) and, voilá, the act would appear.
They were the ones who saw the real value in a prize of this ilk and they contributed hugely to it working so well. Fair play to them.
THE JUDGES: HOW ARE THESE RANDOMERS PICKED?
Randomers? If only you knew the amount of work that went into making sure all bases were covered by that panel.
You had to have print, radio and online. You had to have people from Dublin and outside Dublin. You had to have someone from up north and down south. You had to have a gender balance. And you also had to have brand new judges every year.
I’m disappointed to see that seven of this year’s 11 judges are repeats from previous years. I really believe that there are always more than enough media figures out there to come up with a brand new panel every time.
Why wasn’t there room this year, for instance, for the likes of Shilpa Ganatra (The Star), Daniel Gray ( Totally Dublin), Peter Curtin (Spin Southwest), KC (Today FM), Cian Trayor ( The Irish Times/Stool Pigeon), Claire O’Dwyer (Red FM) or Jenny Greene (2fm), to name seven possible replacement judges for the repeats, seven who’ve never been on a Choice judging panel before?
HOW DO THESE JOKERS COME UP WITH A WINNER? AND CAN THEY BE BRIBED SO I CAN WIN SOME WONGA FROM PADDY POWER?
On the night (Thursday, March 8th, in this case), the judges and chairman are sequestered in a dark room where they debate, dissect and discuss the shortlist with panache, poise and other fancy words. Within a few hours and after some horse-trading, they should have reduced the shortlist to two or three possibles.
There is then more horse-trading and you eventually have a winner. Easy, right?
WELL, THAT’S NOT VERY HELPFUL
Remember that the Choice Music Prize winner must get at least six of the 11 judges on their side so you’re looking for an album that appeals across the board.
You need an album that ticks the boxes for radio and print and that people are prepared to stand behind. It may not be the favourite album of everyone in the room but it’s the one that a majority of the judges feel they can be happy with.
My tip? Look for the judge you reckon will have the most sway in the room (ie the loudest one), check out his/her favourite Irish albums from last year and go with that. Last year, for the first time, I bet on the Choice Music Prize and collected a handsome wodge thanks to Two Door Cinema Club.
SO WHO’S YOUR MONEY ON THIS YEAR?
See the panel, bud.
The Meteor Choice Music Prize live event takes place at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, on Thursday next.
THE CHOICE MUSIC PRIZE RUNNERS AND RIDERS
And So I Watch You From Afar: Gangs
Sadly, there are probably not enough open-minded judges to give the nod to the Norn Iron instrumental head-the-balls and recent Ticket cover stars. Richter Collective
Bell X1 Bloodless Coup
Third time on the list for the band. If they don’t win it this time for what’s a brilliant set of radio-friendly indie-pop, they never will. Joint-favourite in our book. Belly Up Records
Patrick Kelleher & His Cold Dead Hands Golden Syrup
The annual WTF? album. Again, unlikely to have more than one or two fervent champions in the room. Osaka Records
Jape Ocean of Frequency
Richie Egan won it before for Ritual which is probably reason enough for the judges to go elsewhere this time around. Music Is For Losers
The Japanese Popstars Controlling Your Allegiance
Interesting inclusion on the list - I can tell which of the judges voted for this one! – but unlikely to have the mass appeal on the night in the room. EMI
Cashier No 9 To The Death Of Fun
Solid debut album and there are one or two fans on the judging panel. Maybe, maybe. Bella Union
Lisa Hannigan Passenger
Passengerhas been greeted with rave reviews and the album has a couple of tunes which sound great on the radio so we’re making this one joint-favourite. Hoop
Pugwash The Olympus Sound
Thomas Walsh’s power-pop is not to everyone’s taste, but there are enough fans on the judging panel for this to feature strongly. EMI/1969 Records
The best Irish album of 2011 in my opinion. Sadly, I can’t see enough judges cutting a rug to this superb set of forward-thinking, backward-facing block party grooves. Popical Island
We Cut Corners Today I Realised I Could Go Home Backwards
The second best Irish album of 2011 in my opinion. We Cut Corners could – could – cause a surprise if the judges wanted to make a point. Delphi