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Behind the Scenes: Polaris discussion list

· by Tab S.

Most familiar with the Polaris Music Prize will know that a jury of over 200 music writers, broadcasters, and bloggers (check out our Better Know A Jury Member profiles for insights from our esteemed cross-country panel) is indispensible to the process that determines the award.

But what many may not know is that before the jurors make their five-album selections for the Long List and subsequent Short List, they spend much of the year discussing their picks and pans on an e-mail listserv that’s open only to jury members.

While not all the juristas choose to throw their two cents into the online discussion, over the years the list has spawned many a thoughtful debate (or acerbic argument!) over the records jurors love, hate, or are utterly indifferent towards. Some jurors (who will remain nameless) can be counted on to bring the snark, while others don’t mind adding a little earnest music-nerd fandom into the mix.

No matter what’s being fervently championed or summarily dismissed, over the years the discussion list has become a forum for jurors to discover music that might have gone under even their own well-informed radar. Talk to most jurors and they’ll readily acknowledge that a particularly impassioned introduction or defence of an album by one of their fellow jurors has encouraged them to either listen to that record for the first time – or maybe give it another chance.

Recent chatter on the list has naturally turned to the jury’s thoughts and opinions on the Short List – given that democracy is the tyranny of the majority, some jurors have heaped praise on the final ten nominees, while others (whose picks didn't make it to the finish line) are more indifferent.

But that’s the beauty of the Polaris jury and its discussion list – the Prize encourages a diversity of views, and everyone’s welcome to have a say.

For a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the sort of exchange that goes on online between Polaris jurors, we turned to two jurors with very different opinions on the Short List: Veteran juror Michael Barclay, co-author of Canrock history Have Not Been the Same, came out strongly in favour of the Short List when it was first announced, while NxEW.ca blogger Justin Beach (who’s been on the jury for the past two years) offered up more of a shrug.

Fellow juror Tabassum Siddiqui (who admits to being slightly timid about joining the fray on the discussion list, but does get up the courage to post from time to time) asked both jurors to expand on their Short List musings.

Tabassum Siddiqui: How did you feel upon first hearing the final Short List?

Justin Beach: A little flat, really. There were some really good albums on the list, but for me it really isn’t about the “best” album anymore. From my own point of view, the best albums of the year are no longer on the list.

TS: Which of your picks made it to the shortlist?

JB: (None.)

Michael Barclay: Three: Arcade Fire, Galaxie, and Destroyer.

TS: What are your overall thoughts on the final Short List?

JB: I’m not going to come out and attack anyone or criticize any of the nominees. There are some great artists and really good albums on the list, and I certainly don’t begrudge whoever the winner is. I simply have different ideas about what the best albums of the year were.

MB: This is my favourite Short List since the first year. Not just because there’s only one album on the list that I hate – normally there are at least two, and sometimes one of those wins the prize – but because I’m also impressed with the relative diversity of artists, in terms of both age and experience.

TS: Which of the shortlisted acts would you like to see take home the Polaris?

MB: I’m so impressed with the shortlist that I honestly don't care who wins – as long as it’s not Hey Rosetta!.

JB: Part of me wants to say Braids just because female artists have been so badly overlooked by Polaris. I think that there is a deeper problem for women in Canadian music than I did before I began as a Polaris juror. It’s nothing overt – I’ve never heard anyone say, “I don’t like female artists” – but it does seem like albums by women, or fronted by women, have to be much better than albums by men to get noticed (and I say that as a man.)

TS: Why do you choose to post to the Polaris discussion list? What do you get out of it?

JB: Last year was my first year on the jury, so the list sort of provided a good orientation and introduction to the overall Polaris process.

MB: Early on, years ago, I saw albums I loved getting ignored by the jury, and I realized it was my own fault for not piping up. One can never assume that everyone else heard the same records you did last year; likewise, never assume that what you like is so obscure that no one else on the jury will be into it. You’d be surprised.

TS: Do you think the list helps contribute to the overall process of selecting the Polaris Prize?

JB: Originally I thought it would, but after this year, I don’t really think so. Only about a quarter of the jurors [seem to] participate, and I haven’t really seen much evidence that it changes anyone’s mind about much, or at least in that it influences or changes the outcome.

MB: I think it elevates a general awareness of regional or genre favourites to critics who wouldn't normally have access to certain records or publicity channels. I think it helped, say, a record like Karkwa – or even Fucked Up – reach more jurors’ ears than they would normally, so that probably helped those records land on the Short List and eventually win the prize.

TS: Have you personally discovered any albums or artists from the recommendations to the Polaris discussion list?

MB: Absolutely. I don’t think I ever would have heard the Eternia and Moss album, and that's a hip-hop album that is at least as good as the Shad album on last year's Short List. I’m a fan of Tim Hecker, so I may or may not have picked up his latest album (I do find his records somewhat interchangeable), but I heard this one thanks to the list and loved it. And I first read about The Weeknd in the discussion list, and that record almost made my ballot: the music is amazing, but the lyrics are asinine. The list has also made me revisit albums I dismissed or misplaced somewhere in my kitchen.

JB: I can’t honestly think of any. I have a pretty good network of people across Canada who keep me posted on things. The few albums that have come up on the list that I’d never heard of were largely things that didn’t really fall within the range of stuff I like.

TS: Has the discussion forum influenced your own final picks for the Long List or Short List in the time you’ve been a juror?

JB: Maybe in small ways – people’s arguments might have moved an album up or down a spot, but ultimately I have a pretty intensive process that I go through for voting, starting with 100 or so albums and then listening repeatedly to narrow it down to five. So ultimately, that really determines what ends up on my ballot.

MB: This year it did, for the three artists cited above. I can’t say it's always impacted my ballot; usually it has opened my eyes to certain records that I’ve then ended up reviewing in my weekly column in a mainstream newspaper. So whether or not a record makes my ballot, I think the list does provide critics across the country with access to tiny records with no promotion that they then get excited about. It’s a great word-of-mouth tool.

TS: What do you get out of being a juror for the Polaris Prize? Why is it important to you as a music writer/critic?

JB: I don’t know that that’s the right order. I write about music because I love music. That passion influences my ballot, but I don’t know that my ballot or the Polaris process influences what I write or what I write about.

MB: Why is it important to me? Because I’m so happy that a national forum like this exists outside of the Junos and radio awards, that 20 years from now we’re going to look at these shortlists and remember some truly great records that maybe didn't sell more than 10,000 copies but still had a huge creative impact on this country’s musical history.

TS: Do you have any criticisms – or plaudits – about the discussion list itself?

MB: I’d like it better if more people participated – I feel like we only hear from about 20 per cent of the jury – but you can't put a gun to anyone's head. There's also a chummy camaraderie that I enjoy and partake in – which can involve flippant humour – but I understand how that can be alienating to newcomers, or critics who don't all hang out together at NXNE or Pop Montreal.

But mostly I wish people would argue more passionately for records they really love – and that they would do so more than a month before the deadline. Because by May 1, I already have 20 records I’m considering for a five-slot ballot, and I’m definitely not going to download something I've never heard of on May 20 because someone said, “Yeah, I guess it's a pretty good record.”

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