The Polaris Prize jury has been selecting and awarding “Album of the Year” to Canadian artists since 2006. Polaris’ goal is to recognize Canadian albums based on artistic merit, regardless of genre or number of albums sold. The winning artist or band gets $30,000 and runners-up each get $2,000.
Polaris started in 2006 and is modeled after other prizes that recognize creators regardless of commercial success, such as the Giller literary prize.
Steve Jordan, Founder and Executive Director of Polaris, says he was inspired by bands like Metric, Stars, and Broken Social Scene in the mid-2000s. At the time, these bands were rejecting major labels while making “extremely interesting music”. The bands in this scene have since gone on to become household names, but Jordan says there was no way to predict that at the time.
Polaris’ jury is selected by an application process. Steve Jordan tells me that jury members must be “obsessively listening to and filtering music in their day-to-day existence“. A large portion of the jury is made up of music journalists, but that isn’t a requirement.
Jordan says they try and select a range of journalists from different parts of the country that specialize in different genres of music. He says it’s also important for jury members to be able to appreciate music outside of their main genre. They make an effort to have equal numbers of males and females on the jury.
Once the jury has selected a long-list of artists they vote, whittling it down to a shortlist of 10 albums. Then, the grand jury selects the winner. The grand jury is made up of 11 people. Each album is represented by one jury member who gave it a #1 vote. The 11th jury member is a wildcard.
This year’s shortlist nominees include expected and popular albums by Drake and Arcade Fire, but also includes some exciting lower-profile releases by Jessy Lanza, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, and others. Past winners include Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Karkwa, Fucked Up, and Caribou.
The idea of a music prize that gives every artist an equal chance is altruistic, but it’s not easy to address every issue and appease everyone. One such example is last year’s winner, Godspeed! You Black Emperor. The band released a statement saying they appreciated the nomination, but had three main concerns:
-holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do.
-organizing a gala just so musicians can compete against each other for a novelty-sized cheque doesn’t serve the cause of righteous music at all.
-asking the toyota motor company to help cover the tab for that gala, during a summer where the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the internet, IS FUCKING INSANE, and comes across as tone-deaf to the current horrifying malaise.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor said they would use their $30,000 to set up a program to provide musical instruments to prisoners in Quebec.
I asked Steve Jordan what he originally envisioned winners using the money for.
He says he had no specific vision, he just wanted to recognize musicians and celebrate albums in the same way that paintings and novels are celebrated.
The Polaris Gala is live-streaming from Toronto tonight (September 22nd) at 7 PM Eastern. Mac DeMarco, Owen Pallett, Basia Bulat, Jessy Lanza, Shad, and Tanya Tagaq will be performing.
Nina Ulloa covers breaking news, tech, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @nine_u