The one certainty in the Irish music calendar over the past 10 years is the uncertainty of the outcome of the Choice Music Prize, the award given annually to an Irish album of the year at a live event in March. The other certainty is that someone is likely to be upset by the result.
The night, which normally takes place in Vicar Street brings together Irish musicians, fans, and media to witness the crowning of one artist and album deemed the best in the previous year. Winners over the awards' 11 years have included Jape, The Gloaming, Two Door Cinema Club, Julie Feeney, Delorentos, Villagers and Super Extra Bonus Party.
The chosen album is picked by 12 judges (led by non-voting chairman and Irish Times writer Tony Clayton-Lea), who, while everyone else is enjoying live performances of the nominated acts in the venue, spend their time locked away in a room on the night debating and arguing over the merits of the shortlist.
The night is a culmination of months' work overseen by David Reid, the Choice Music Prize co-founder, who is also a trained psychotherapist, an artist manager (for Tara Lee, Robert Grace and State Lights) and booker for the First Fortnight, the mental health arts festival.
“The Choice is not an award show, it's a live music event,” says Reid, who adds that the annual reveal of the nomination list of 10 albums in early January every year always surprises him too.
“The Choice Music Prize is an attempt to put a spotlight on Irish music for two and half months,” Reid says. “There is one winner but it is about 10 Irish acts. Also, the acts that don't get nominated get some coverage as well by people highlighting what's not on the list.”
Reid brings in the partners, who help make the Choice Prize happen. The Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) and The Irish Recorded Music Association (IRMA) put up the enticing €10,000 prize money. Other partners include the Recorded Artists Actors Performers Ireland (RAAP), Today FM, HMV, Culture Ireland and Music Week.
Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, who won in 2005, quipped that the money would go towards a new kitchen. Regardless of whether that was true or not, most of the winners put their winnings back into their craft. “A lot of winners have used the money to record albums.”
The Choice Music Prize process for the following year begins shortly after the March event, with Reid and the Choice PR representative Liza Geddes meeting to recap the previous year's event. Reid then meets with IMRO, IRMA and RAAP, the three main bodies involved.
It's a year on year commitment from the partners,” Reid says of the event's lack of long-term funding. In previous years, the Choice had a title sponsor in Meteor but this year there was no sponsor forthcoming. “IMRO and IRMA this year stepped up with more support, time and funding this year as we don't have a title sponsor,” explains Reid, who himself is underwriting any potential losses incurred from the event.
In June, the 12 angry judges are picked.
“We look for a balance between print, online and radio,” says Reid. “Regionally, we try to get that right too. This year we've an additional focus on overseas judges with an Irish connection. That helps with reach as well.”
This year's Choice judges based in the UK include BBC Radio 1 presenter Phil Taggart and Head of Music at Radio X, Mike Walsh. A number of media from abroad are brought over to attend the event in March, mostly from the UK with one US representative. Their trips are covered by Culture Ireland in an attempt to promote the nominated acts abroad.
Album shortlist announcement
This year's selection of albums were announced early in January and include albums from Girl Band, SOAK, Roisin Murphy, Ham Sandwich, Le Galaxie, Colm Mac Con Iomaire, Villagers and Young Wonder among them. Reid says a Choice nomination is having an immediate impact on their careers, citing radio play for one of the acts on BBC Six Music the day after the announcement, which prompted queries about live bookings too.
The only ceremonial addition to the Choice Music Prize was the introduction of the Irish Song Of The Year prize, which runs in parallel with the album list. The award was introduced when Meteor was a title sponsor, which Reid says wasn't the motivating factor.
“We spoke to Today FM really about doing something else alongside the album of the year and Meteor were keen for us to develop it, but it was a two-way process between Choice and Today FM.”
Song of the year
Where the main prize is wholly reliant on the consensus of the judges, the Song Of The Year takes a different tack, operating via a three-way process: judge's votes, Irish airplay charts and Today FM DJs.
“That gives us a mix of both new and established like The Academic and All Tvvins getting featured alongside Hozier, Kodaline and Fight Like Apes,” says Reid.
Then, the shortlist goes to a public vote. Previous winners of the Song Of The Year have included The Script, Royseven and The Original Rudeboys. The process clearly leans towards a popular mainstream winner.
Popularity contest vs. critics choice
Does Reid think there's a disparity between how the the two prizes are given, one picked in consideration by critics and one decided by a popularity contest?
“I think previous winners show that they do sit well together. Gavin James won in 2012 when he was a brand new act and now he's really breaking internationally. The public vote gets people behind it. Today FM push the voting. We try to engage with the public in the song of the year because the songs are usually more well-known and more people have an opinion on it.”
With the award show coming up on March 3rd in Vicar Street, Reid is currently working with getting as many of the acts who are nominated to play live on the night. Reid would love to do two stages at the event, as they did at the 10th anniversary gig in Dublin's Mansion House last year, a series which also travelled to Galway and Cork with winning acts Delorentos, Villagers and Jape playing live.
“We could look at bringing in a new band element, doing something at a different time of year, building the song of the year, bringing in more international media, do more PR in the UK for the acts to promote the music over there. We are looking at lots of options,” shares Reid. “We're trying to make the Choice more of a ongoing project.”