Discussion: The SAY Award – ‘Who seriously thinks Chaosmosis is one of the best albums of the year?’
David Pollock and Stewart Smith get their heads around the whos, whats and whys of the SAY Award longlist
Music writers David Pollock and Stewart Smith talk about the Scottish Album of the Year Award, in a wide-ranging conversation that takes in the priorities of public funding, the need for more diversity, the function of the awards, the future of the Scottish music industry and a bit of gratuitous Primal Scream-bashing.
Okay, so I suggested we do this because I saw your post on Facebook about the SAY Awards – you made lots of interesting points, not all of which I agreed with. Maybe you should start by saying what your thoughts were on the longlist?
I was a little underwhelmed. There are some good records in there, but too many usual suspects and B-list indie acts. Does the world really need another Django Django album? Who can get excited by this vaguely dancey indie fodder? Like many a 30-something, I remain very fond of the Beta Band, but the latest Steve Mason solo album is hardly earth-shattering. I can't get mad about such acts making the longlist, but it's a shame it's at the expense of emergent acts. Primal Scream can do one though. Chaosmosis is such a lazy, piss-poor effort, running on the fumes of Bobby Gillespie's tired hipster reference points. Who seriously thinks this is one of the best albums of the year?
On the positive side, it's cool to see electronic music doing quite well, especially HudMo and Aunty Flo. It's a shame Golden Teacher's EPs were ineligible though. There's tons of indie piffle like Admiral Fallow, but no metal, jazz, experimental etc. Perhaps there could be a change to the voting system so that more niche genres stand a chance?
A friend raised the point about what the awards are for: are they to support grassroots music, or promote the Scottish music industry? It feels more like the latter. As a result, you've got quite a bland, corporate list that doesn't really reflect the diversity and energy of the Scottish music scene. I support the principle of the awards, but I can't help but feel it's a bit of a missed opportunity.
What do you reckon to the longlist and the question of what the awards are for?
It was exactly what I'd expected, although that doesn't mean I expected to see every album on there. But it has a decent mix of styles. HudMo, Auntie Flo and Young Fathers are real innovators; C Duncan, FFS and Miaoux Miaoux have all made really distinctive and engaging pop records; and I guess some of the others maybe suffer from overfamiliarity, if anything.
But I think we're on very different pages about what the awards are for. I remember writing about this in The Independent back in 2013 (hold on, I'll look it up): I said that the SAY ‘is symptomatic of the resurgent cultural confidence in a Scotland poised on the brink of … an independence referendum.’ For me the SAY Awards are wrapped up in the whole feeling of possibility and national self-analysis from that time; let’s call it a celebration of localism rather than nationalism. ‘Here’s who we are and what we do,’ it says, whether that’s Rustie or RM Hubbert or Belle & Sebastian or Boards of Canada. Or even Emeli Sandé. It seems to be a statement to have awards like the SAY at the moment. Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland all do; England doesn’t, but let’s not go there …
The SAY gives us something to rally round every year, to look back and see what’s worked and what hasn’t. While artists’ labels have to pay to enter the Mercury, the SAY – open to public nominations, a lot of people involved in the decision-making – is as egalitarian as it gets. But do you think that works against it, that if enough people play it safe it can’t help but let your Primal Screams in?
I know where you’re coming from, that there’s a whole strata of good underground Scottish music that doesn’t seem to get recognised by the SAY: the Golden Teachers and so on. But how do you do that without rigging it? I’d say the awards are definitely meant to support the industry, but they’ve done a good job of giving the grassroots a boost; the 20k will have come in very handy to winners like RM Hubbert and Kathryn Joseph.
I guess the simple question is, what opportunity do you feel it’s missed? And what do you think it’s for?
You're absolutely right that the award is about building the Scottish music industry, but I guess that's my problem with it! If it wants to be a Scottish Mercury then fine, get private sponsorship. But as a publicly-funded award, it should be taking more risks.
In fairness to the organisers and judges, they're clearly aware of their public duty, and have made positive moves to include a diverse range of music and correct the gender imbalance. Furthermore, the award has always gone to deserving independent artists, who genuinely seem to have benefited from it.
The lack of entry fees is certainly a good thing, and has allowed some emergent artists through, but inevitably records that have a bit of marketing heft behind them tend to dominate the longlist. It's hard to say how to change the voting system without, as you say, rigging it, but I wonder if the votes couldn't be weighted against the big acts. Or perhaps the simplest measure would be to revise the list of nominators, so there are more independent voices and fewer industry figures picking the same boring records!
Or you could make it a debut album award, so that emergent acts and new projects are supported over established acts trading on former glories. Or to be more radical, do away with the 20th century focus on the album and embrace different formats: EPs, MP3s, cassettes etc. That would make for a more dynamic shortlist, although I appreciate it would be tricky to market.
'But as a publicly-funded award, it should be taking more risks' – there's probably also an argument that a publicly-funded award should make an even greater effort to be populist, although I agree that the general public doesn't always make the best electoral choices. I'm not going to give it the embarrassing old 'if Emeli Sandé sells the most, then she has to win it' argument either, but I guess inclusivity cuts both ways – bands like Django Django and Admiral Fallow are of the mainstream, but they mark out their own territory within that and use it well. The same goes for Pollock, Mason, Hector Bizerk and Rachel Sermanni; every one of them has their own aesthetic and there's room for all of them on this list. Might there be an amount of personal taste coming into play? I wouldn't say Admiral Fallow are a 'famous' act, and they'd probably be able to cultivate their career very nicely with a win. I agree it would be very disappointing if Primal Scream won, but their presence lends an 'in' for casual fans.
It's worth noting here that we and our editor have already acknowledged the diversity element in discussing this; specifically that only 25% of the list comprises female or significantly female acts (I'm counting Dunedin Consort here). Scottish music has always had this image of being very white and male, but I'd say the SAY does the best it can with a recognised problem within the wider industry – it's getting better, in fact. The 2015 SAY shortlist was 20% female (including the eventual winner) and in 2014 it was 10%; in the last three years the Mercury shortlist has included 25% to 33% female acts on a longer list, also increasing more recently. Bearing in mind we're both white males, all I'd say is on those numbers recognition for female artists is improving, although it could be quicker. I don't know if you want to add anything?
I don't think aiming to be a Scottish Mercury is really a bad thing, for all that prize's faults it gives a good overview of the territory between commerce and artistic endeavour. The SAY does a decent job of being many things to many people, but I guess it would be nice to know how it could be even more. More nominators from an even wider range of backgrounds, perhaps? I like your idea of a first album award, but I don't think it would do the very effective marketing and overview job of the SAY. Maybe give a chunk of the prize money to a separate award for the 'best' of all that year's first albums, chosen by a similar method? I guess those new albums would still have to be eligible for the 'big' SAY too, though.
I appreciate SAY has to include some populist choices in order to hook in a wider audience, but I am a bit uncomfortable with the idea of public money propping up the marketing campaigns of established mainstream acts. By that I don't mean your Admiral Fallows so much as your Primal Screams. Or in previous years, Mogwai and Belle & Sebastian. Acts on that level don't need SAY, although in publicity terms, perhaps SAY needs them.
I can't deny that personal taste comes into it, but don't take my withering remarks about certain acts to mean I think there's no room for them. It's just that it's a little disappointing to see the same names coming up again. That's inevitable the longer the awards go on, but it does make things a little predictable, and potentially shuts out newer acts. I do like your idea of having an extra prize for debut albums, although as you say, those records would have to be eligible for the overall prize too. Perhaps that could be extended so you have genre prizes. That's tricky to define, though, and you'd lose the clarity and simplicity of the SAY concept.
There's a wider context to my comments on the spending of public money; when you see the Scottish Government giving money to T in the Park but failing to save The Arches, it looks a bit like socialism for the rich and austerity for the rest of us. It's not that the grassroots should have to rely on public cash, but if you want to scale things up from a local DIY level, then funding is essential. It's not that SAY is hogging funding that would otherwise go to the grassroots, but I do think that as a publicly funded award, it needs to be about more than simply boosting the Scottish music industry. Of course SAY is not a panacea. There's a wider conversation to be had about public funding and the Scottish music scene, and hopefully this discussion can be a contribution to that.
To end on a positive note, who would you like to see win this year? For me, it's Anna Meredith.
Heh, I'd say your first paragraph answers its own question, in that the SAY definitely benefits from the presence of Primal Scream etc. Although the fact they're not all Scots and based in London makes me wonder how eligible they are, but we’re already giving them more attention than they need!
I agree with your comments on public funding, though. The SAY isn't the be-all-and-end-all, but it's a high-profile method of moving popular music into that area of discussion. Hopefully no politician or public administrator believes its existence is job done, but that it’s one very welcome part of a music culture which draws attention to Scotland from across the world. Supporting that isn’t just about signing the winner’s cheque, it’s about standing up for the industry wherever they can. It’s important to interrogate public spending, but it’s also important to recognise when it’s spent well, and I think the SAY does well. That it scooped the Mercury on Young Fathers is just one example of its value.
Anyway, I’m staying quiet on the winner, but I’m sad Spook School weren’t nominated – they play the jangly, excitable indie for which Scotland’s scene is renowned, with added comment on gender which is, I think, really ground-breaking. But there’s always next time.
David Pollock is a freelance arts, culture and feature writer based in Edinburgh, and Stewart Smith is a writer and researcher based in Glasgow. He covers jazz and underground music, literature and environmental art. The SAY Award shortlist is announced on Thu 16 Jun, and the winner is revealed on Wed 29 Jun at an award ceremony held at Paisley Town Hall.