Prize Comparison: Polaris vs Mercury

Could the British award embrace the left field?

Too long since the last Twitter meltdown? Concerned you can’t survive another day without arguing with faceless strangers on the other side of the world, over subjects which previously aroused little in the way of your opinion? Ignoble worriers, prepare thyselves: the Barclaycard Mercury Prize is almost upon us.

As one of the foremost events in the British music industry calendar, it’s surprising how much it simultaneously provokes ire and indifference. ‘Too safe!’ cry its critics on a yearly basis, and while there have certainly been shock winners in previous years (Talvin Singh, Speech Debelle and even Gomez have raised eyebrows), it’s difficult to deny there’s a certain level of cosiness to the whole thing. Clash’s own Mike Diver has already explored this theme at length, so rather than retread old ground, let’s examine in contrast with one of the awards it has inspired – namely, Canada’s own Polaris Music Prize.

Looking through the lists of previous winners, it’s immediately obvious that the Canadian jury rarely stands on ceremony when it comes to the way winners will be received. Had they formed on this side of the Atlantic, could a swearily-named hardcore group like Fucked Up even be nominated for the Mercury, let alone win the darn thing? (Indeed, you’ll have to go as far back as 1994 and Therapy?’s ‘Troublegum’ to find the last hard rock album nominated over here). Equally, what would the British public have made of an album entitled ‘He Poos Clouds’? The latter won the very first Polaris award back in 2006, placing the already-critically-acclaimed Final Fantasy – now, of course, recording as Owen Pallett – firmly in the media glare. What would sponsors Barclaycard think? Could the self-righteous-when-convenient gutter press have reported either of those remarkable victories without decrying the conscience of pop music, and by extension its audience? More importantly, would anyone care?

It’s impossible to know, simply because it’s difficult to argue that those records could have been made – or at least celebrated to the same extent – in the UK. While the British Isles are certainly no slouches when it comes to music that’s forward-thinking, dynamic or challenging, their mainstream media is rarely willing to project that. Furthermore, the Mercury judges are a shadowy bunch, tending to remain mysteriously anonymous throughout the decision-making process. Polaris is markedly different in its approach, publishing a list of over 200 voting journalists, bloggers and broadcasters on its website. In other words, the process by which Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs’ picked up a gong is much less opaque (and arguably more understandable) than alt-j’s victory with the rather less widely-loved ‘An Awesome Wave’.

Founder Steve Jordan certainly believes this to be one of Polaris’ key attributes. “Sometimes the winner gets people angry,” he explains. “We know that 90 per cent of the fans of the other nominated bands are gonna be annoyed, so we try to be transparent about how we got here.”

The wide range of bloggers also helps to make it more understandable that Colin Stetson’s album of sprawling, skronked-out saxophone compositions (‘New History Warfare Vol. 3: To Se More Light’) can be nominated alongside the relatively straightforward guitar pop of, say, Metric. The curve is definitely wrecked by the presence of Stetson and post-rock veterans Godspeed You! Black Emperor, amongst others, somehow make the list seem more bold than it necessarily is. Like the Mercury, Polaris’ 2013 shortlist is dominated by… well, indie bands. Metric, Tegan And Sara, Young Galaxy: the sort of thing that’s going to glisten majestically to some, but appear clouded by the pungent stench of landfill to others. This leaves plenty of room for accusations of tokenism when it comes to additional genres, and invites criticism for the notable absence of hip-hop from both lists. Nonetheless, for all the remarkable tension of Jon Hopkins’ smouldering electronica, or the Technicolor imagination of Foals, the British nominees can’t touch Polaris when it comes to extremities of sound.

“It’s interesting to hear that perspective,” Jordan muses. “I get the opposite sometimes. The Mercury always has that, why don’t you have that? We intentionally disregard genre. It gets us in trouble sometimes – you know, there’s no rapper nominated – but we are really are trying to pick quality, and not token nominees from any type of music. And also I don’t even know what category Godspeed or Colin Stetson are.”

Alex Edkins, guitarist with Toronto noise-rockers METZ, believes this variety can only be a good thing for Canadian music. “For us to even be mentioned is kind of insane,” he says, referring to his band’s nomination for their self-titled debut. “And then you’ve got avant-garde jazz, and Godspeed… that’s pretty wild! There’s nothing safe about any of those acts. And on the other side you’ve got pure pop acts. It’s an interesting mix.”

Drummer Hayden Menzies agrees. “It seems like Polaris is becoming such an institution – it’s supposed to be something that’s not for everyone. It’s not necessarily that easily digestible. So the fact that we’ve gotten into some new ears because of that is fantastic.”

Excellent news for the artists concerned, then, but that begs the question of why Polaris seems more willing than the Mercury to look to feedback-drenched post-grunge, or expansive orchestral soundscapes. A swift look at the Canadian Top 40 reveals little; global (by which we usually mean American) pop figures like Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga dominate just as steadily as they do in Britain, and there’s as little chance of METZ slipping into Montreal’s daytime radio playlists as there is of Ken Bruce dropping in a new offering from Fucked Up before baffling ELO fans on Popmaster. So could it be, simply, that choosing a wider variety of judges, not to mention publishing their names, genuinely does inspire a more honest voting process? Rather than the dominant narrative of the pop industry, is this representative of what music fans truly want to celebrate?

Another element worth considering is that Polaris is free to enter, as opposed to the Mercury’s £204 fee. Paying to enter a competition such as this does somewhat negate the principle of commemorating the best album produced in the UK and Ireland, since it leaves out the vital clause of money changing hands. Jordan, on the other hand, explains how Polaris are constantly changing the rules to make the competition more accessible: “I understand there’s a bit of My Bloody Valentine controversy at the Mercury this year” he says. “This year Zaki Ibrahim had a deal elsewhere but she was just on her own Bandcamp page in Canada. But we consider those to be releases now – if it’s out in public it’s been released, so I was happy to see Zaki make the shortlist based on her music and nothing else.”

It’s refreshing to see elements of the music industry attempting to embrace change as it happens, so used are we to record companies attempting to ignore it. The most interesting part of this comparison is yet to come, however, since we already know that Polaris was won by the aforementioned Godspeed’s fourth album ‘Alleluljah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’ – their first since returning from a lengthy hiatus in 2010. There’s a deep suspicion that such an album could never be nominated for the Mercury, let alone win it, and regardless of the band’s pointed non-appearance and subsequent ‘acceptance’ statement, it’s an extremely brave choice that places a lot of trust in the Canadian public to recognise a thoroughly impressive piece of art. In light of this, the UK winner is certainly going to provide interesting food for thought.

Of course, the flipside of this is the great unanswered question about both awards: what exactly is the point? Godspeed have built up a significant audience on their own terms since the worldwide release of their first LP ‘F#A#∞’ in 1998, and have made it plain that they do not care for the ostentatious sums spent on glitzy award ceremonies, particularly during austere times. Their $30,000 cash prize will go towards setting up an instruments-for-prisoners programme, which is as honourable a response as one could hope for from a band with such strong feelings on the matter. But in terms of the music industry itself, would it not make more sense to reward undiscovered talent by presenting them to the wider world, rather than acts who already have a healthy public presence? Jordan doesn’t think that’s necessarily the case.

“We’ve never said we’re about emerging artists. Emerging artists may have won in the past, but that’s not our mission statement. We want it to be about the whole conversation. If we can create this magnetism towards a record because it’s good, then we’ve done our job.”

Godspeed You! Black Emperor are obviously well-known now, but 10-15 years ago they were building this audience around the world – there’s one example of artists who get a break outside of Canada, and don’t necessarily have a commercial media outlet to take them on here. We’re here to go ‘this is happening all around the world’, and bring it back to Canada. It’s a two-way thing.”

And when it comes to the whole conversation, METZ bassist Chris Slorach has the final word: “I don’t think Polaris has that stamp where everybody in the country goes and buys [the winning record]; it brings attention to certain acts that wouldn’t get it otherwise. It’s important that music actually polarises, whether people really like it or really despise it.”

So there you have it: the polarising music prize. Over to you, Mercury.

Words: Will Fitzpatrick

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Clash previously explored the shortlist for the Barclaycard Mercury Music Prize 2013 at length – catch up on that feature HERE.

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