The Polaris Prize is the only musical award that actually rewards musicians monetarily. Is that a good or a bad thing for the artists? by Luke Winkie.
There is not a lot of money in baroque composition.He Poos Clouds,the second album under Owen Pallett’s Final Fantasy moniker, was released in 2006 on the microscopic co-operative label Blocks Recording Club. It features a blustery, very-DIY ballpoint-pen drawing on the cover, and eight of the songs are inspired by schools of magic inDungeons and Dragons. It’s hard to think of a record that cared less about its merchandising, which is why it was a big deal when it won the inaugural Polaris Prize. Pallett bested more profitable names like Broken Social Scene and the New Pornographers, and took home a trophy and a giant novelty check for $20,000.
“For a musician $20,000 is a substantial amount of money. What you have to remember is that in the first year of Polaris a lot of people in the community felt a little wary about it. We were like ‘what is this thing? Do we want to be involved in this weird competitive structure?’ but when I won it wasn’t even a big deal, I remember it was reported in a little piece in theGlobe & Mailwhere they called me an electronic artist,” says Pallett, now 37.
Today Pallett is an in-demand composer and conductor with credits on Taylor Swift’sRed,Arcade Fire’sReflektor,and (seriously) Robbie Williams’Take The Crown.In 2014 he was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on theHersoundtrack. Safe to say, Pallett is no longer scraping by with nerd-classical opuses for a tiny audience of adherents. He is a grown man with a real career. But that $20,000 absolutely made a difference once upon a time.
“At the time I was in a relationship and my boyfriend was struggling to pay off his student loans. We had only been dating a couple years, but I gave some of the money to him. A lot of the musicians I had on the record were kind of working for me for free, and I didn’t feel right about winning a cash prize without giving some to them,” says Pallett. “The remaining $5,000 I gave to a band to help them make a record.”
The Recording Academy talks about the mystical “Grammy bump” that predicts a rise in sales after an artist is featured on the world’s biggest music award show, but those doors are only open to a select few of the commercial elite. The Polaris Prize, which has specifically operated to celebrate the best Canadian full-length album each year for a decade, has always backed up their advocacy with cold hard cash. The nominees are routinely eclectic, and winners include Caribou, Tanya Tagaq, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and this year, Kaytranada. The financial award has jumped from $20,000 to $50,000 - more than many people in the arts make in a year. When so many galas hand out trophies on default premises (like U2’s endless string of Best Rock Song nominations,) it’s cool that one institution hasn’t lost sight.
In 2015, when the then-74 year old Native Canadian folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie won for her 20th albumPower in the Blood,she announced candidly, “I’ve got an Academy Award and a Golden Globe and a couple Junos and a Gemini Award — this is the only one I’ve ever heard (of) that gives the artist money.”
“There’s this [perceived feeling] of ‘we’re artists, we’re not supposed to be swayed by money, or compensation,’ but it’s crazy. It’s a lot of money,” says Pallett. “It’s a celebration but it’s also a service.”
There will always be detractors when a for-profit entity is subsidizing the arts. Pallett says he felt a little uneasy taking the money in 2006 because at that time the ceremony was sponsored by Rogers Wireless, a Canadian cell phone company that he calls predatory. Godspeed took a predictably tiresome, confrontational political stance when they won in 2013 - refusing to attend the event, opting instead to release a statement that said “holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do.”
“These are hard times for everybody. and musicians’ blues are pretty low on the list of things in need of urgent correction,” it read. “BUT AND BUT if the point of this prize and party is acknowledging music-labor performed in the name of something other than quick money, maybe the next celebration should happen in a cruddier hall, without the corporate banners and culture overlords."
And sure, there’s obviously something to be said about the conflation of money and artistic integrity, especially when the artists highlighted are outsiders by trade. For years Polaris handed out a giant, novelty-sized check,which looked really funny in the hands of Dan Snaith. But honestly, that sort of thing is only troubling if you think about it too much. Sandy Miranda quit her desk job in 2008 to play bass for Fucked Up because she couldn’t get enough vacation time off to tour anymore. When they won Polaris for their titanic, still-awesomeThe Chemistry of Common Life,she said the band was dancing around poverty levels.
“It was the most money we had ever made, and so we made sure to use a portion of it to write, record, and release theDo They Know It's Christmas7" (plus a star-studded, hilarious B-side) that went to benefit Montreal’s Justice For The Missing & Murdered, Ottawa’s Sisters In Spirit and Vancouver’s D.T.E.S. Power of Women,” she says.
When Fucked Up won, papers around the country had to figure out how to print the result while still hiding the expletive. There is only one major accolade in the world willing to recognize a 52-minute experimental-hardcore album from a band with the word “fuck” in their name. I refuse to believe that isn’t a positive thing.
“It was very much appreciated, especially because it was not based on sales or popularity or industry schmooze. We don't have a manager or a full-time publicist to keep looking for ways to help us be ‘cool.’ We've just been doing our own thing our own way this entire time and not giving a fuck. I would say winning the Polaris has more of an impact on the life of a band than winning a trophy because money allows you to further invest in your craft,” says Miranda. “It was a total surprise, and I'm glad that it happened because I don't think our band would've been able to survive to 15 years without that boost.”