The Man in the High Castle: Why Canada’s Polaris Prize is Bullshit
Dave Hall runs Handshake Inc, "an independent film and music production company, record label and publisher specializing in the sights and sounds of the underground." We're happy to have Dave on board for a series of guest features detailing his various hijinks. Today, though, Dave Hall, Canadian, takes on the vaunted Canadian culture award, the Polaris Prize.
Music and art creation in Canada is at an all time low if you ask me, not in terms of potential, quality, and overall ‘goodness,’ but because we have become a nation increasingly reliant on the government to fund the art we make.
Fueled by the irrational fear that our national identity will be corrupted by American interests if we don’t produce our own art -- and the de facto acceptance that government funding of the arts is a good thing -- the majority of Cannuck artists have lost their entrepreneurial spirit and commonly rely on Uncle Stephen Harper to foot the bill for artistic ambition.
Canadian music production and creation is especially reliant on Federal and Provincial funding, (any ‘successful’ label in Canada has a pro grant proposal writer on staff) and this has created an “industry” that is propped up by state money and state sanctioned cultural laws. With very few exceptions, the Canadian music “industry” is bought and paid for by our government -- and the bloated, phony cherry on top is something called the Polaris Prize.
For the uninitiated, the Polaris Prize is an annual music award bestowed upon the Canadian(s) who have made the ‘best’ full-length album in a given year. It starts with a long list that becomes a short list which produces a winner. The prize comes with a $30,000 check (cheque).
The Polaris Music Prize is a not-for-profit organization that annually honours, celebrates and rewards creativity and diversity in Canadian recorded music by recognizing, then marketing the albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history, as judged by a panel of selected music critics.
That’s the Polaris mandate. It seems more like a defense strategy against any preconceived backlash than an actual mission statement, making out any opponent as a Canadian-hating, jealous, bitter, and jaded jerk.
So, am I?
Well, yes and no. The reason I care so much -- and get so bent out of shape -- about the Polaris Prize, is because it's the apex of government-funded pop. Not only does the prize of $30,000 come from FACTOR (Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Record), but Polaris' god-awful ‘gala’ is paid for and supported by the Canadian government and the Ontario government, along with corporate sponsors. In the end, I don’t want my hard earned tax dollars subsidizing a bunch of jerks who can’t make it on their own.
If this was a privately-funded contest, I would still judge it and make fun of it, but I’d keep my greasy nose out of their business. It’s my personal opinion that you cannot legislate culture, and I do not want government-approved music all up in my grill. Also, as an aside, many of the bands nominated for a Polaris would most likely have nothing but contempt and scorn for the Canadian government -- I mean, what artist fucking likes their government, right? And though they have no say in being nominated, those bands will line up to receive the reward, because free money. Yet the indigenous people of Canada live on apartheid-like reservations with no access to electricity or water. Imagine how far that $30,000 would go for someone living in that type of poverty? Simply put, there are people in this country who need that money more.
Also, as someone who produces music and film and sells it primarily in the United States, I have seen, first hand, that if the government actually gets out of the way, guess what: the sky doesn’t fall. People still produce great art and feel good about themselves for doing it based on their own entrepreneurship.
I get it, Polaris was founded by an ex-corporate record executive who wanted to come up with a smart way to sell more Canadian records. He wanted to start a ‘national dialogue’ (there’s so much business jargon in music marketing in Canada it makes me sick) to get record stores in Canada to move more product. He wanted to help create and sustain a music industry in Canada where Canadians buy Canadian records. It’s a noble idea, but in reality, it doesn’t work and only benefits a precious few, least of which are the bands and musicians themselves. Polaris states it wants to promote diversity? The same group of “indie” (genre, not ethos) darlings get nominated year-after-year. On top of that there is no accountability whatsoever for the nomination process. This is taken from the Polaris website:
“Congratulations, you’ve made an awesome record! The good news is, if you’re Canadian and your record is more than 30 minutes/8 tracks long plus a few other criteria listed in our rules above, it’s already eligible for Polaris consideration. There is no submission process. That means every artist has an equal opportunity regardless of their marketing savvy or budgets.”
Oh, well, isn’t that fucking convenient. If there's no submission process, how the hell does Polaris decide what albums make the initially-released long list? Don’t worry, the Polaris jury of “experts” is here to help. Consisting of “journalists, broadcasters, bloggers, programmers and other experts in the field of devouring and deciphering new Canadian music,” these learned men and women of culture will decide the 40 best Canadian albums culled from the long list for us.
Forgive me if I’m skeptical, but I don’t really need Fartman and the Bear on 99.9 THE RAWK HAWK telling me their favorite Canadian album of the year. I already know what it is, it's whatever the fuck they are paid to spin on the radio. This is one of my biggest problems with Polaris: you select a jury of writers and journalists, who, as the logic goes, have the greatest exposure to new Canadian music. That makes some sense. But they all somehow pick the same shit.
This voting process also removes absolutely all objectivity and accountability. Of course they are going to pick shit they have reviewed, shit they have played -- they want to look smart, even though what they've heard has been assigned by editors or picked by program directors. Take Arcade Fire’s Reflektor (please). This is an album that received a lot of luke-warm-at-best reviews, yet, surprise surprise, it made the short list, vs, say Gorguts’ Colored Sands, an album that generally reviewed better than Reflektor but didn't make the short list cut. Where is the logic?
Apart from the funding of Polaris and its flawed selection methods, the prize is unnecessary: we already have the Junos, our annual Grammy style music awards. Why do we need another national prize? And honestly, nationalism in art is a joke. Have you ever enjoyed art because it was produced in 'X' country? Do you care about the nationality of the artists who made your favorite art? Do you support art based on the nationality of its creator and/or the country it is created in? Apart from off-shoot economical reasons (irrelevant to any good art anyway) WHY DOES IT MATTER where a painter, band, poet, sculptor, or filmmaker is from? I sure as hell don’t care, but maybe that’s just me.
In Canada, Canadian art and culture is heralded as the original Christ Jesus, defender of our way of life, and protector against our evil cultural cousin, the USA. Thanks to our original art-hater and nationalist businessman Pierre Juno, we have laws in this country to “protect” us from turning into flag-waving Americans. We have laws to ensure that proper, Canadian culture is created in Canada by Canadians, for Canadians. Real Canadian art, about beavers and trees and lumberjacks and hockey and poutine and geese and curling and sex with dead bodies and ducks and wind. And if you question any of this, if you ask why most of our collective, government-funded, creative output sucks, you are a traitor. If you suggest that art will always exist regardless of government's funding, you are a right-wing lunatic.
The reality is, even before the advent of the Internet, cultural protection is futile. Thanks to broadcast towers in Buffalo, Detroit, and Cleveland, I grew up watching American TV. My childhood heroes were on the A-Team, G.I. Joe, and Diff'rent Strokes, not Polka Dot Door, not Casey and Finnegan, not The Littlest Hobo. The best cultural protection in the world is no match for "I want to watch what is good.” Personal taste is informed by what you enjoy, not the nationality of creators.
Okay so lastly, what about the marketing and promotion of Canadian albums, another mandate of Polaris? Surely there is no downside to a Canadian musician receiving "free” marketing? Fine, whatever, the promotion angle is okay, except that most of the bands on the short list ALREADY GOT THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS IN FACTOR MONEY TO MAKE, PROMOTE, and TOUR their music.
Of the ten bands/artists on the short list this year SIX of them have received money from FACTOR. And it wasn't just pocket change. Yammantaka//Sonic Titan received over $66,000 alone. Basia Bulat got $35,000 dollars to record an album, and that shit is an acoustic guitar and vocals. (I’ve lost count of the amount of marketing and promotion money Arts and Crafts are awarded yearly yet I rarely see any ads for their bands.) The majority of the nominees have already gotten more than their fair share from the public coffer to follow their dreams and be big rock stars. On top of that, they get to attend a gala like rockstars and sip drinks and tell ironic jokes in some upscale hotel while the rest of Canada eats cake. Do you honestly think it’s a coincidence that six out of ten bands on the short list have been bankrolled by FACTOR? Don’t even get me started on FACTOR. The board of directors of FACTOR owns one of the fucking record labels that has a band on the short list. But no, that’s not crooked at all. That’s totally fair. That’s objective.
It’s time Canadians stopped relying on the government to fund the creation of their music. Black Sabbath didn’t get a dime of state dough to make their first six albums and they turned out pretty good. Same with Neurosis, Slint, Public Enemy, Melvins, Cat Power, Superchunk. . . Somehow those bands found a way to create art that lasts forever without Santa dropping a bag of free money in their laps.
And that’s why I call Polaris prize complete fucking bullshit. It's government-subsidized, nationalist taste created to benefit the few over the many. At least last year, God Speed Youf Black Emperor! gave their prize away. I encourage this year’s winner to do the same. After all, that’d be the Canadian thing to do.