Exclusive: Exclaim! Puts the Polaris Music Prize Jury Under the Microscope
Published Sep 17, 2009By this point, most Canadian music lovers know the Polaris Music Prize. It's the $20,000 award given out each year to a full-length Canadian album, based solely on artistic merit and regardless of other factors. The prize is now in its fourth year and has previously been won by Final Fantasy, Patrick Watson and Caribou.
For this year's award, 182 Canadian music journalists, broadcasters and bloggers made up the Polaris Music Prize jury, an independent group that selected a long list of 40 nominated artists. That list was then further narrowed down to a short list of ten nominees, consisting of bands like Great Lake Swimmers, Fucked Up, Chad VanGaalen and K'naan, with the final winner to be decided by a special 11-member jury on September 21.
But who are the jurors voting on these bands and deciding who gets one of Canada's most coveted music awards?
Using the list of jurors' names and occupations found on the Polaris website, Exclaim! conducted a survey looking at where the jury members lived and at their gender. According to the results, the Polaris Music Prize jury is both overwhelmingly male and from Ontario.
The survey found 48 percent - or 87 jurors of the total 182 - are from Ontario, while Quebec came in second with 22 percent (40 jurors) and British Columbia in third with nine percent (16 jurors). Looking at the jurors' hometowns, Toronto had the most jurors (35 percent), Montreal the second most (20 percent) and Ottawa the third (seven percent).
The results also showed 73 percent - or 133 - members are male, with 24 percent of the jurors (44) being female and three percent (5) of the jury members' gender being unknown.
Comparing this to the bands nominated, five of the final ten short-listed groups were from Toronto, two from Montreal, and one each from the cities of Calgary, Halifax and St. John's. The 40-band long list was dominated by bands from Quebec (43 percent) with Ontario trailing in second (35 percent) and Alberta in third (10 percent).
"We try to have as much representation as possible," founder and executive director of the Polaris Music Prize Steve Jordan said of the jurors in an interview with Exclaim! He explained that the reason it looked as if a disproportionate number of jurors were from Toronto was that they counted journalists who worked for national media outlets, such as the Globe and Mail, CBC Radio 1 and MuchMusic, as being "national," not from Toronto, though many of them did live in the city. "We strive to get as much regional representation as possible," Jordan added.
He said that they attempt to make the selection process as transparent as possible; people can ask to be included in the jury, but are accepted or denied based on what they cover. According to Jordan, what the Polaris Music Prize looks for in a jury member is someone who has a good grasp on their local music scene, but a willingness to objectively compare it to the rest of Canada.
Carl Wilson, a music writer for the Globe and Mail, the author of the 33 1/3 book Let's Talk About Love and blogger behind Zoilus, told Exclaim! that the results were probably an improvement on what would have happened in the past.
"These stats reflect structural things about the current nature of Canada and the Canadian music industry," Wilson said from Toronto. "They would have been way worse a decade or two ago."
Wilson noted it was commendable that the jury was 23 percent female in the face of the fact that the music industry tends to be "sponsored by sausages." He further noted that while it would reflect well on most cities' scenes that 40 percent of the short-list bands contained at least one female member, there was a lack of female-fronted groups this year (just Metric who is led by Emily Haines).
"So are the voting results sexist?" Wilson said. "Yes, but probably less sexist than most of what happens in the music industry."
He also pointed out that though Exclaim! didn't survey for race, it would be interesting to see the results. "The short list is 90 percent white people. Christian Lander should do a Polaris prize entry for [his blog] Stuff White People Like."
As far the finding's regional differences went, Wilson attributed these to how much people pay attention to music in each area of the country as part of the reason for some areas seeming under represented, with there being more jury members from Toronto or Montreal than, say, Vancouver or Winnipeg.
"How important to the overall population is the music scene, in each place?" he said. "That will also affect how much demand there is for music coverage in that place and how many people will get into a professional or at least semi-professional position of writing or broadcasting on the subject in that place. Which... affects the available pool of jurors in each place."
He pointed out that regional balance was not the whole point of the prize, though did mention that "you'd expect to see more Vancouverites" as it is the third biggest metropolitan region in Canada.
Calum Marsh, staff writer for the blog Coke Machine Glow, further defended the large number of jury members in Ontario and Quebec, as those areas are not just larger in terms of population but are also hubs for artists.
"There are more systems in place in cities like Toronto... than say Moosejaw, Saskatchewan," March told Exclaim! from Ottawa. "I think... the demographics for the long list and the short list reflect the reality that bands from larger cities have an easier time getting... and finding an audience."
He mentioned that the Polaris prize, in the end, works like most prizes based on voting do, saying that, though Polaris strives to show off artists based purely on critical merit, the lowest common denominator would always come into play to some degree.
"When you ask any number [of people] to vote, the most popular [band] is always going to win," Marsh said.
Jordan, on the other hand, isn't too worried about people complaining about the results of the nominations. He said there are so many different groups involved that some will always have a beef with the results.
He also noted that Polaris is still a relatively young organization with plenty of room for growth. "Polaris is... a work in progress as much as we have a mission on how we want things to go," Jordan said.
Exclaim!'s survey results were based on our Internet research of each of the jury members. Steve Jordan verified that the numbers from the survey were accurate to the best of his knowledge.
The Polaris Music Prize will have its gala announcing the 2009 winner on September 21 in Toronto.
The results of Exclaim!'s Polaris Music Prize survey, based on 182 jurors:
Jurors' province of residence:
British Columbia 9%
New Brunswick 1%
Nova Scotia 3%
Jurors' top five cities of residence:
Ten short-listed bands' cities of residence:
Nova Scotia/Halifax 10%
Newfoundland/St. John's 10%
Ten short-listed bands' gender:
Contains a single male member: 100%
Contains a single female member: 40%
Total members of bands who are male: 89%
Total members of bands who are female: 11%
Bands fronted by a man: 90%
Band fronted by a woman: 10%
Forty long-listed bands' city of residence
Nova Scotia 3%