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Chatting with the Founder of the Polaris Prize

He thinks Canadian music is just as important as the oil sands or lumber.

by Conrad Sweatman
Jun 25 2013, 4:34pm

Steve Jordan with a headset on. The headset is probably playing a Drake/Arcade Fire mashup. via CBC Radio 3.

When the Polaris Prize began in 2006, its long list used to read like a who’s who of obscure new talent that was only familiar to the most obsessive of Canadian buzz band aficionados. But in the past few years, that trend of discovering young blood quickly moved towards rewarding people like Feist, and bands like Arcade Fire, tens of thousands of dollars that they have graciously donated to charity. Prize money aside, the focus of Polaris has evidently shifted away from rewarding up-and-coming acts to shining more praise on acts that don’t necessarily need it. Or at least that’s how a lot of cranky music nerds have come to look at it all.

According to Polaris Prize founder and director Steve Jordan, the inclusion of mainstream artists into the Polaris lists is a byproduct of the Canadian music industry being in fitter, happier, and more productive shape. While this might be cause to celebrate, it also means that your favourite electro-filth-folk band is never, ever going to win the Polaris Prize. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Anyway, I spoke with Steve Jordan about how Polaris has evolved, and how the prize is not designed to be a charity for the indie scene—whose very existence he suggests is a suburban legend. Because, what is a genre anyway, right?

VICE: One criticism that’s plagued Polaris since its inception is that you only have ears for indie music. What do you say to that complaint?   
Steve Jordan:
Are Drake and The Weeknd, both of whom were recently nominated, indie acts? When people say indie, I don’t know what they mean. The idea of indie has more to do with the listener’s own political or fashion sense, you know. It doesn’t really describe anything. I don’t know what it means. I bet you can’t describe it to me?

Uh… orchestral elements, sweltering major-7 chords, 80s synths. Hipster fashions. I don’t know.   
You’re struggling to describe it to me.

I’m a little curious why you’re so curious about my definition.
I care because you’re a writer, and the term is an invention of writers. You never get an indie rock band saying, “I’m in an indie rock band," until some journalist writes it first. But ultimately I think the real question should be what’s good? That’s all we’re trying to say at Polaris.

Well, obviously some of the recent nominees are not indie, in the sense of being independent from major record labels. It’s also debatable whether these acts, Drake especially, need $30,000 of Polaris money. Isn’t that making the prize’s purpose redundant?
This whole notion that Polaris is a prize to give money to the needy is completely off. It’s not why we exist. I can understand why people see it that way when they see that the water supply for Drake’s entourage costs about what we would’ve given them in prize money had he won last year. So, I completely understand why people think that the rich shouldn’t get more money. But I would respond to that criticism by saying, check out our mission statement, which is to highlight what the critics say is the best album of the year.

Part of the issue seems to be that the Canadian music scene is at a commercially more vital moment than it was around the time the Polaris Prize was established. Relative to its history, what do you think the state of the music industry is like today?
I think it’s in a great place. The system that’s been built over the past ten to twenty years is something to behold. Canadian music is something to be proud of, and furthermore, it’s become one of our most important and successful exports. I would put it up there with lumber, potash, and Alberta's oil sands. 

Do you think Polaris has had anything to do with this development? 
I would never say that we’re solely responsible. Not to use too hippy of a reference, but there’s a rainforest kind of thing in the Canadian music industry where all of the organisms, the bands and funding sources alike, live off each other. Certainly artists who get a lot of attention like Arcade Fire, Feist, Metric, or even Austra end up bringing as much international attention to Polaris as Polaris is bringing to some of the lesser-known artists on our list.

There’s also a conservative position that subsidization eases the pressure on artists to find an audience for their work. How do you respond to that argument?
That’s a pretty blanket statement about conservatives. I know quite a few who are actually arts funding supporters. Even Rob Ford, during this latest controversy, went on record as supporting the arts. Heritage Minister James Moore follows Polaris, is a fan of many of the artists nominated, and is very vocal about that. I think what you’re talking about, that argument, was circling around much more about ten years ago.

Dropping the argument’s political baggage, how do you respond to it? It’s a popular concern about the consequences of arts funding in general.  
My perspective is if you’re a patriot and want your country to excel, it’s not really about supporting things that are popular. A population is only as healthy as its art, and there are a lot of popular things that are unhealthy, Bum Fights among them. (Laughs). Don’t you remember that series of videos, Bum Fights?

Yes, I sure do.
A population is only as healthy as its art. Especially in a country that, you know, outpunches its weight when it comes to what we contribute culturally to the world. There have been arts cuts under a lot of governments, but I doubt they’ll ever cut it entirely. It’s just too important.

Doesn’t the commercial success of many Polaris nominees show that the effect of the prize has been the opposite of what conservatives might’ve predicted?
I don’t want to confuse people with what Polaris ends up doing for artists, and what our mission is. Our mission is only to highlight what critics say is the record of the year; and in doing so, creating a conversation surrounding Canadian music. And whereas that conversation was maybe happening on a small-scale before, now more people are participating in that discussion. And anything else it does, like enhancing someone financially, or giving career opportunities to someone who is nominated. It’s all great, and it’s all by design, but it’s not the primary mission, which is to get people to take notice of the records on the list.    

Help me out here—what are some of the other criticisms leveled against Polaris over the years, and how have you responded? For example, how do you respond to Paul Lawton's criticisms of Polaris, if you've been following them? 
If someone has a reasonable concern or question about how or why we do something, we’re usually pretty good about considering it. But most of the criticisms we’ve addressed amounts to saying that the thing that I like didn’t get nominated and therefore Polaris is corrupt and out of touch. We have internal discussions all the time about the prize and its rules, and we’ll still often re-tweet criticisms about bands that didn’t end up on our list because we’re about the whole conversation.

Then there’s someone like Paul Lawton, who I know VICE interviewed a while back, who has a popular Tumblr called Slagging Off that knocks Polaris. He may have had some good points, but they’re lost in a sea of mistruths, and lack of research. One of the things he said in that VICE article is that six people got together in a room to decide the winner. And it’s like, no, it’s not six people, it’s 11 people. Maybe that doesn’t make a difference to some people, but it certainly makes a difference to us. In one of his other bones of contention he says that no one criticizes Polaris, because no one wants to lose their spot on the jury. This is pretty much the exact opposite of what happens. Not only do we encourage open debate, we get it all the time internally.  

But you know, the Internet breeds negativity. I can’t explain the phenomenon. Because really we’re trying to do something positive here, and I think we’re succeeding.  


Meet the Guy Who's Slagging Off the Canadian Music Industry