Some Might SAY
Some might SAY...
On April 25th 2013, nervy Korean troops practised landing drills in Ponhang, citizens in Boston continued to watch the emotional fall-out from the recent bombings in their city and the death toll from a Bangladeshi factory collapse reached 200. Thus the announcement that day of the long list for the Scottish Album of the Year Award (SAY) 2013 may not have hit headlines, but those of you who witnessed the flurry of online activity in its wake might well be very aware of it. Flashing across Facebook and Twitter, the 20-strong list of relatively native artists and albums punched well above its apparent news weight and became quite the topic of conversation in Scottish musical corners.
The respectably varied list of nominees included household names like Emile Sande and Calvin Harris alongside the eclectic and substantial talents of lesser known artists such as RM Hubbert and Miaoux Miaoux. With a tantalising first prize of £20,000 and nine runner-up awards of a grand each, healthy discussions thus ensued over the various merits and failings of the lucky score of musicians. Some deemed too commercial and benign, others dismissed as esoteric: the product of inverse artistic snobbery and close-minded elitism. Many a witty retort, glowing endorsement or acerbic observation followed. The debate that didn't really seem to register on the Richter scale of pop-culture outrage was, quite simply, why?
Why do we need an SAY award? More to the point, why do we need an SAY award which is funded entirely from a public purse? What exactly is SAY and what about it merited almost £100,000 of government funding last year alone?
Its organiser, the Scottish Music Industry Association, was, in its own words, established to promote and support the best interests and endeavours of Scotland's music industry... and to champion the extraordinary output of our artists and businesses both at home and overseas According to the website of Creative Scotland - effectively the central bank of arts funding in this here land - SMIA received a total of £180,500 over the course of 2012 from the national arts funds, a sizeable £93,500 of which was ear-marked specifically to organise the SAY. This year's event also involves the support of other organisations, including the likes of whisky outfit Dewar's, who are unlikely to be getting a free ride. This all considered, we as tax-payers (and lottery players) might well question the financial effectiveness of our fiscal support. Creative Scotland, who hands out money as it sees fit, is, after all, a distributor of National Lottery funds: public money. It defines its own remit as “to help Scotland's creativity shine at home and abroad” but is a private awards party in Glasgow and a few subjectively allocated cash prizes really the best way of achieving that?
Started last year by the aforementioned SMIA, the SAY awards were ostensibly intended to “Promote new music in Scotland” and designed to “increase engagement and sales”. With the green light already long since given for the second round of the SAY, have those goals ever been met? To date, it's not even clear if anyone has really asked.
Certainly, for those lucky enough to receive one of the limited number of tickets to the event, this must seem like a terribly exciting coming together of Scotland's domestic musical elite: a Who's Who of A to D list celebrities and industry bods marvelling at just what a fertile land we live in. But what about the other 5.5 million people financing that party? Can we turn up at the door with a passport or utility bill and get wired into the buffet? There is no trifling amount of money involved and there seems to be a real danger of this slipping into the realm of one big industry jolly. Many might see it as the suits from Creative Scotland getting to stamp a few forms, counter-sign a cheque and then lurch out from the depths of their bureaucratic fortress to have their photos taken with Ricky Ross, Billy Sloan or the members of Travis (if indeed the latter still matter enough to get invited to such things).
Then there are the issues of cash prizes based on a closed vote, surely a dubious subject any time charity money is concerned. To address this the SAY have certainly developed an elaborate process and striven for as much transparency as they deemed practical, deriving a long list from suggestions by one hundred specially selected nominators, holding a brief public vote to shorten that list to ten and then leaving the final decision on how to divvy up the loot to a panel of 12 judges, hand-picked for their knowledge of music (which includes inspirational icons like Tjinder Singh, front-man on twee indie hit Brimful of Asha).
When it comes time for the Arty Dozen to consider those ten finalists, it would be interesting to learn whether circumstances out-with the music itself are taken into account. Emile Sande and Calvin Harris are both multi-millionaires for example (the former estimated at around five million and the latter closer to seven), on huge deals with major international labels. Sande has only recently done the unthinkable in breaking a record set by The Beatles for longest tenure in the top 10 album chart. That is no small feat. Likewise, Harris set a record of his own, with 8 top 5 singles being lifted from nominated album 8 Months These are world famous artists, with massive album sales who - whether we like it or not - for many across the globe, represent their only point of reference for Scottish contemporary music. Certainly they are flying some sort of flag on our behalf. But will either of them blink at a £20,000 prize? Will either of them even have time to come to the ceremony? Most importantly, is it even ethical to give such a massive sum of public money to already-rich individuals surfing the good favour of the biggest media corporations on the planet when we could be directly investing in the fortunes of those who have not enjoyed the same breaks or who pursue avenues less conducive to Nike endorsements and Hollyoaks play-listing?
This issue of musical context also leads to the possibility that, if the judges do indeed take personal fortunes, corporate backing and an uneven level of exposure into account, then surely they themselves are loading the dice. Deliberately interfering with the process. If either of the two aforementioned affluent acts were to be voted into the final ten by the public are they then to be disqualified from that short list on the basis that it's probably not even worth their while walking to the bank to cash a cheque for £1000? A cheque that could make a major difference to any younger or less affluent act is pocket change for these international stars. There emerge so many points of contention and glaring cracks in the veneer of democratic process that the entire exercise begins to look utterly redundant.
But spare a thought for SMIA here. Clearly they are never going to please everyone in this scenario but, if the objective truly is to encourage and reward great Scottish talent abroad, why are we not prioritising the acts already taking the time to go abroad off their own back? One glaring omission from this year's list would be Divorce, a Glasgow-based quartet who's eponymous debut album was one of the great underground success stories of the last 12 months, released with meagre means yet met by critical acclaim. The band also tirelessly propelled themselves around the UK and Europe on hard-fought DIY tours, to equally rapturous responses. Exactly the kind of behaviour and reputation one would expect the SMIA to encourage. Yet, despite the record's clear artistic merit, Divorce's less-than-mainstream (see abrasive) sound might well have played a large role in their exclusion. Partly due to the fewer channels of exposure it can thus be afforded by mainstream media and partly due to the very specific palette it's particular flavour demands.
We face a situation where, in theory, a Scottish act could effectively dominate a niche genre like ambient drone, power metal or progressive jazz, producing an album of such enduring quality that it sets new standards for fans of said sounds, yet they then fail to even make the long list, finding themselves usurped by any number of substantially more widely heard mainstream albums, regardless of how those albums compare in their relative fields. That scenario in turn then raises the age-old contentious issue of whether or not to implement some kind of eclectic affirmative action based on the subjective opinions of critics and peers. Another minefield and another nail in the coffin of fair play, regardless of what side of that argument you land on.
All these things considered, are there alternative ways to pursue the goals SMIA has laid out and benefit our musical communities?
Some countries in Europe offer subsidies to domestic acts (fuel costs, benefits) that enable their exports to tour sustainably. France in particular runs the scheme “Intermittence du Spectacle” which allows serious gigging musicians to qualify for income support throughout the year and properly commit to their art. Other regions make facilities available to musicians at reduced cost, including practice spaces, recording studios and custom transport. Meanwhile we continue to channel our resources into a short-sighted popularity contest that, thus far, primarily rewards those already enjoying relatively successful careers (see Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells who were awarded £10,000 of your money last year). Could we not take, for example, a leaf from the book of the local authorities in Beziers, France, who bought and totally renovated an abandoned farm village on a nearby hillside, transforming it into an artistic hub, including a 2000 capacity venue, workshop space and a custom-built recording studio equipped with some of the finest analogue equipment on the planet? This venture in particular has not only benefited the local community, who take advantage of the facilities on the cheap, but aroused the curiosity of international acts looking for places to record (a certain Mr Thom Yorke's management dropped them a line mere weeks into the project).
In the same vein, Creative Scotland and its curative predecessor The Scottish Arts Council have been responsible for the financial support of numerous great domestic talents in the form of smaller individual grants, assisting acts in their developmental stages. The benefits of these targeted cash injections can be invaluable (as a former recipient I speak first-hand) and even a brief scan of those who have utilised this resource throws up some great success stories and enduring works, including Jo Mango, Olympic Swimmers, Adam Stafford, Found, Mitchell Museum, The Xcerts, Frightened Rabbit, Twin Atlantic and Zoey Van Goey. This more considered and focussed approach to re-investing our lottery funds seems far more likely to produce positive results, whether for that specific project or for the artists' development as a whole, especially as opposed to ambiguous notions of “boosting record sales” in a dwindling market-place.
It should be said that this year's SAY nominee list is certainly comprised of many very good albums and the proclaimed goals of SMIA are commendable. They seek to further the reach of Scottish music and that could only be beneficial. At their core, this organisation is almost certainly comprised of enterprising, intelligent individuals looking to oust the dinosaurs of our native establishment and replace trite images of The Proclaimers with fresh, exciting and world-class contemporary acts in the minds of the average foreigner. But by adopting the closed-door policy of private parties and rewarding the select few at public expense, they are surely just emulating the arcane, self-serving attitudes of the establishment they seek to supplant.
As an unfortunate but significant bi-product, our ability to publicly engage with this issue also comes into question. There has been little written about the specifics of it and even less of a critical nature. With almost every sizeable public forum in the country on-board it's easy to see why. The list of nominators, detailed on the SAY website, includes representative of all the major magazines, newspaper media departments, radio DJs, bloggers and record label management. Clearly, due to their involvement, this minimises the ability of any such individuals to be entirely objective when discussing the process or outcome and, likewise, dissenting voices find their avenues of discourse cut to virtually nil, bar angry late-night tirades on social networking sites. The pursuit of a mandate is thus sewn up from the start and, in a situation where public money is changing hands, that same public is only afforded one perspective on the matter. A perspective that inevitably proclaims the merits of this bold new enterprise and asks no serious questions.
Whilst it would be rash and quite probably unfair to presume it was the original intention, we are, in effect, witnessing the creation of a new musical cartel. A seemingly unaccountable hierarchy that represents its own perceived notion of what constitutes the best of the current Scottish musical landscape and props up that definition at our wider expense whilst consulting us on the matter in only the most fleeting capacity. Dissent is marginalised and those operating on the periphery of the country's music scene suffer whilst the inner circle prosper.
If the intention of SMIA and Creative Scotland is indeed to benefit the country's musical community, can we not look to the examples of other countries and actually return that money to the wider community, helping people help themselves? Or are the greater population to be left, pressing their noses against the outside of steamed windows, watching as the party they paid for rages on behind closed doors?