Polaris Music Prize: An equal opportunity award?


by Elizabeth Parker

Time for another Polaris music prize – this year’s list of nominees will be released June 13 in Montréal, QC. Over the past few years, the prize has started to gain attention as a Canadian musical achievement award, based exclusively and somewhat controversially on artistic talent alone. The winner receives not only $30,000 in cash, but also a title of artistic distinction among an array of great Canadian talent.

The unique award has been somewhat under the radar amongst the Canadian music scene. The first prize was awarded in 2006, as a way of celebrating and promoting new Canadian music. What really sets Polaris apart from other awards though, is how it deems the winning album a work of art.

But who defines talent? And what does it take to win?  The winner, either solo or group, is ultimately chosen by a  jury panel, comprised of notable Canadian journalists, broadcasters and bloggers. There is no application process – Canadian artists automatically qualify if they meet the criteria. However, finalists are chosen quite selectively, with a focus on a certain je ne sais quoi.

Polaris has received criticism in the past for sticking to trendsetting indie acts, forgetting about many hugely successful mainstream artists, as well as the many eligible underdogs.  It doesn’t consider radio success or chart ratings, but relies on the musical expertise of the jury panel. Judges seem to favour a certain musical taste, and while they do have a knack for choosing high quality, somewhat distinctive music, the whole process is very subjective.

Interestingly enough, while the award disregards genre, most winners fall into the alternative category. There seems to be an obvious relationship between alternative music and artistic talent, suggesting that these artists have an unusual, unique sound and are more creative. But past winners rarely include genres such as jazz, blues or reggae.

While Polaris claims it is an equal opportunity award, it instead pays homage to a few hand picked artists that have promise. Is it really a Canadian talent award, or an award based on the freshest sound?

Last year, Feist’s lush masterpiece, Metals, came out on top, with runners up such as Grimes, Cold Specks and the Japandroids.  Other past winners include Patrick Watson, Caribou and Arcade Fire. With so many possible nominees, and a limited amount of time for selection, the award is a far cry from consistent. Since judges compile the list of contenders themselves, there are countless albums that go unnoticed.

For now, Polaris is a somewhat ambiguous trophy. Although unlike so many other award and prizes that use a voting system, it starts to consider more than just ratings and popluarity. With an increasing amount of talent and creativity in the Canadian music scene that deserves to be credited, Polaris tips its hat to the nation’s best. Let’s just hope that as the award continues to progress, it will remain diverse in its scope.

The long list of nominees will be released June 13 in Montréal, QC. The short list, aka, the top 10 albums, will be released July 16, and the grand prize gala will take place September 23, where the winner will be announced.

Illustration is courtesy of Polaris Music Prize

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