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The AMP: Why We Got The Shortlist We Deserved

The Australian Music Prize needs to work out whether it wants to be a peer-voted or critically appraised award, writes DARREN LEVIN ahead of today’s big announcement.


In the lead-up to last year’s Pazz & Jop poll – a survey of critics published annually in The Village Voice – outspoken US critic Christopher R Weingarten openly questioned the credentials of the 700 writers who cast their vote for their album of the year. “They should close Pazz and Jop ballots to anyone who heard less than 500 new records this year,” he Tweeted to his 13,000-plus followers.

Why should the AMP be any different?

While it’d be somewhat unfair to hold the judging panel to the inflated standards of a guy who calls himself the “Last Rock Critic Standing”, Weingarten’s point still stands. Taking into account population size, if you didn’t listen to at least 100 new Australian records last year, then you have no business judging the AMP.

Over a three month period (late-October to mid-January), the AMP’s 40 judges (myself included) would typically listen to 80 titles. These titles were to be adjudicated “purely on their own merits” with the expectation (as laid out in a judges charter) that the album would be listened to from start to finish. That works out to roughly an album a day for three months, leaving very little room for repeated listens.

While you probably don’t need two listens to work out whether you like Royal Headache’s Royal Headache or Gilgamesh by Gypsy & The Cat, more “difficult” albums such as HTRK’s Work (work, work), Snowman’s Absence, +DOME by Seekae or Ex Tropical by Lost Animal, could’ve really benefited from a few extra spins. (It’s worth noting that none of these five titles made the nine album-strong shortlist.)

While The AMP’s short time frames are almost unavoidable – they need to allow for records released in the latter half of the year, which in late 2011 saw excellent releases from Geoff O’Connor, Dick Diver, Nick Huggins and Witch Hats – judges should’ve heard at least 70 percent of the records that came across their desk (roughly 56 titles). Sure, there were anomalies (each year there’s the inevitable batch of self-recorded projects that should never leave the bedroom, or wonderful surprises like Fred Smith’s Dust Of Uruzgan), but most of these records are not on the margins. They’re commercially available, or sent out by publicists, and if you’re not aware of most of them, you’re probably not fit to weigh in.



Of the AMP’s 40 judges, 13 are so-called critics, six work in radio and nine are retailers. I’d say the vast majority of these judges will listen to 100 new Australian record in an average year. The remaining 12 judges are mostly working musicians; most of whom, I believe, would fall way short of that benchmark. The reason is simple. While I have absolutely no idea what Kram listens to while jogging, or what Cloud Control’s Ulrich Lenffer spins on the road, it’s not their job to listen to music for a living. It’s their job to play it. (Unless, of course, you’re Robert Forster, the only guy in Australia who effectively straddles both worlds.)

Musicians have a voracious appetite for music, but their listening habits are far less localised and far more haphazard. If they want to spend a month listening to nothing but late-’60s Brazilian psych for “inspiration” they can. If they want to eschew Australian records in favour of music from another time or place, they can. Listening to new Australian records is not a choice for most of the AMP judges, it’s something they (to varying degrees) get paid to do.

Professional musicians tour. They live and work overseas. They bunker down in studios for six to eight weeks, and mix records in impossibly expensive Los Angeles suites for another four. They probably spend months on end in their own music bubble, listening endlessly to isolated kick pedals or figuring out which Pro Tools plug-in to use for that “chorus-y” effect in the outro. Does this leave much time to delve into Dick Diver’s suburban imagery, or fully absorb Collarbones’ complex weave of snippets and samples from the entire history of pop? I’d wager, no. Why? Because they don’t have to.

Then there’s that unspoken musician’s code: how can you pass judgment on a peer when you empathise with their struggle? If you cross that line, does that make you a critic? And if you’re a critic, doesn’t that make you “the enemy”? Musicians generally have a greater insight into the music making process, but that doesn’t necessarily give them an authoritative critical voice. In my two years as an AMP judge, I’ve heard musicians say some concerning things in our irregular, and often heated get-togethers. One judge confessed to not knowing Nick Cave was in Grinderman, while another almost bullied the panel into shortlisting an artist that no one really rated before. (That they were labelmates seems almost incidental.)

“If you didn’t listen to at least 100 new Australian records last year, then you have no business judging the AMP.”

Musicians invariably have the loudest voices in these meetings, and are arguably the most critically ill-informed. They also seem to value musicianship above all else, which probably explains why the shortlist is stacked with incredible singers, impeccable players and crisp production at the behest of more scruffier, challenging material by acts such as Harmony, Royal Headache, or Total Control.

There’s been more debate than ever about this year’s AMP shortlist, with some bemoaning the lack of hip-hop acts, others describing the outcome as “safe”, and even a long-time judge standing down because smaller releases are consistently overlooked. Given the make-up of the judging panel, I’d argue we got the shortlist we deserved.

If the AMP wants to assert itself as some sort of Mercury or Polaris Prize equivalent (interestingly, there are no musicians on either of these panels), it needs to do the following: reduce the panel to 12 judges that work or write across a range of styles; change the format to allow for more robust discussion (a “yes” or “no” should never be suffice in the initial stages of voting, nor should a number at the business end); and, crucially, decide whether it wants to be a peer-voted or critically appraised award.

It can’t be both.


Related: The AMP – Why So Serious?

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The seventh-annual Australian Music Prize will be announced in Sydney today. M+N editor Darren Levin is a judge.

The AMP Shortlist

Abbe May
Design Desire

Adalita
Adalita

Boy & Bear
Moonfire

Gotye
Making Mirrors

Gurrumul
Rrakala

Jack Ladder and The Dreamlanders
Hurtsville

Kimbra
Vows

The Jezabels
Prisoner

The Middle East
I Want That You Are Always Happy

  -   Published on Thursday, March 8 2012 by Darren Levin.
Related Artists


Your Comments

anonymous  said about 2 years ago:

nice work Darren.


dazmurray  said about 2 years ago:

I agree with this proposal.


GrantleyBuffalo  said about 2 years ago:

It's just a shame Adalita wasn't released later in the year...

I'm just kidding, Darren. Excellent article.


GrantleyBuffalo  said about 2 years ago:

...but no mention of Gotye? This place has changed, man.


GrantleyBuffalo  said about 2 years ago:

(apart from the album cover, and the list of nominees)

(please ignore me)


GrantleyBuffalo  said about 2 years ago:

Actually, if you can delete all of my comments, that would be ace.
*
NOTE TO SELF: this is why you should never post before 9am. Or at all.*


GrantleyBuffalo  said about 2 years ago:

FUCK YOU, mark-up!


ghoti-max  said about 2 years ago:

That shortlist is just inoffensive. They're the eight records someone's Mum could handle if it was accidentally slipped onto the family stereo, and I Darren's got it absolutely right that it's the size of the panel and the process that resulted in that, not the quality of those albums.

I'm not 100% on the process, but just by virtue of the number of judges with broad tastes, the inoffensive or middling records are going to find their way through. This is probably a stupid idea, but I think there should be some kind of wildcard system...so that after all the judges Y/N the long-listed records, there's a chance to put your hand up and say 'look, fucks, you need to listen to HTRK one more time.'

So you need someone, whether that's a punk/metal leaning critic like Prescott or Schaeffer, or whoever the hip-hop equivalent is, to come in after the initial screening and really point out the masterful records of the year in that genre. So that at least gives something brave like Harmony's record (that's initially an uncomfortable record) a chance...


bigdaddykane  said about 2 years ago:

Darren wants a pay rise!


Ralph Malph  said about 2 years ago:

Creating music is not a competition in the first place


ghoti-max  said about 2 years ago:

Creating music is not a competition in the first place

Pfffttt. It's like you've never even heard of Australian Idol. Oh wait, creating


steveholt  said about 2 years ago:


astrousersasmind  said about 2 years ago:

Great article, succinctly put. Wonder how many of the other AMP judges will read it.


Goal attack  said about 2 years ago:

while another almost bullied the panel into shortlisting an artist that no one really rated before. (That they were labelmates seems almost incidental.)

Anyone want to do the detective work to see who this is?


____  said about 2 years ago:

The panel being made up of people working in the industry & musicians is so corruptible, it's ridiculous.


montyclift  said about 2 years ago:

corruptible is a bit strong. the ignorance and already set prejudices are far more a worry.

so, a public vote's absurd, an industry vote obviously doesn't work, and no-one trusts the media.

let's just cancel the whole thing.


Popboomerang  said about 2 years ago:

what time is announcement?


Popboomerang  said about 2 years ago:

i don't you think you will ever get a perfect situation, be a shame to see if scrapped, it would be good if the process went online so labels could upload the music & ALL judges could hear EVERY release submitted.


montyclift  said about 2 years ago:

of course it shouldnt be scrapped. but it just seems whatever the format, whoever the winner, someone here is going to whinge on some basis.


Popboomerang  said about 2 years ago:

maybe one year a winner will win that the majority agree with? nahhhhhhhhhhhhh!!


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froginasock  said about 2 years ago:

...more “difficult” albums such as HTRK’s Work (work, work), Snowman’s Absence, +DOME by Seekae or Ex Tropical by Lost Animal, could’ve really benefited from a few extra spins.

Yep.


josejones  said about 2 years ago:

I guess it might work if judges were appointed before 1st Jan each year and then they received monthly updates of every album released, so that they could keep chipping away at listening to the whole shebang. That'd still make it hard for LPs released in the latter part of the year to get as many repeat listens as the rest and it won't address the other issues mentioned in the article.

by this is exactly my point. why do this when there are people around the country that effectively listen to the whole shebang anyway?


betamale  said about 2 years ago:

Nice link froginasock, more Onion gold :)

However in all seriousness I definitely find albums in my collection that are 'difficult' on first listen are usually far more played and appreciated in the long term than the instantly catchy ones.

I find the latter tend to be aural confection that often wears thin quickly - however I also agree some 'difficult' albums are simply crap, and they're the ones that won't grow on you at all.

I wouldn't preemptively exclude the Jezabels album on that basis either - I haven't heard it in full yet but was quite impressed by some of their EPs.

I wonder exactly how many times the critics on here who've instantly dismissed the Jezabels have actually listened to their album, and whether they've given it time to 'grow on them' as they expect the judges to do for their favoured artists?

I can't help but think there is more than a little scenester snobbery involved.


temporarybenbutler  said about 2 years ago:

I can't help but think there is more than a little scenester snobbery involved.

Alternatively, people might have better things to do than repeatedly listen to boring records.


flukazoid  said about 2 years ago:

I'm inclined to think we should give up all this year's-end-review nonsense, and instead hold an awards ceremony 10 years down the track and let the albums get judged on those merits.

People might even realise that part of the value of music is stuff that keeps getting played and remains fresh well beyond its release year.


Captain Oblivious  said about 2 years ago:

I'm inclined to think we should give up all this year's-end-review nonsense

Or just pay them the appropriate amount of attention you think they deserve?


MissAustralia2003  said about 2 years ago:

josejones wrote:

why do this when there are people around the country that effectively listen to the whole shebang anyway?

Hang on, who are the Whole Shebang? I haven't heard that band, where are they?

Awards are serious business because they may lead to increased music sales. But frankly who cares. The secret to awards is nominating EVERYONE so everyone attends so they have a great party. That's the crux of awards. So why weren't the Whole Shebang nominated?


betamale  said about 2 years ago:

Alternatively, people might have better things to do than repeatedly listen to boring records.

...more “difficult” albums such as HTRK’s Work (work, work), Snowman’s Absence, +DOME by Seekae or Ex Tropical by Lost Animal, could’ve really benefited from a few extra spins. (It’s worth noting that none of these five titles made the nine album-strong shortlist.)

Not that i'm denigrating any of the above bands/albums, just pointing out the double standard involved. I'm sure if you played HTRK to a random person on the street you'd have a spontaneous rave party on your hands...


popmedium  said about 2 years ago:

If by Keith Richards you mean Charlie Watts and if by recently you mean 25 years ago and if by Google it you mean remember out of your head that he said he'd spent five years playing and twenty years waiting around

Ha! Wow. That was the internet equivalent of a suplex :)


the hindrance  said about 2 years ago:

Have i mentioned that Kimbra is not Australian!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


The_Tupelo_Flash  said about 2 years ago:

The judging solution is obvious.

Dicko, Marcia Hines and Mark Holden should be locked in a room with the short list of CDs and choose for us.


daveyaviator  said about 2 years ago:

Choose what? Which one of them to stone when they come out?


MalikVerlag  said about 2 years ago:

[I]f you didn’t listen to at least 100 new Australian records last year, then you have no business judging the AMP … the AMP’s 40 judges (myself included) would typically listen to 80 titles.

So by your own standards, none of the judges (yourself included) have any business judging the AMP?

While you probably don’t need two listens to work out whether you like Royal Headache … more “difficult” albums such as HTRK’s Work (work, work), Snowman’s Absence, +DOME by Seekae or Ex Tropical by Lost Animal, could’ve really benefited from a few extra spins.

If you are immediately for or against Royal Headache (or whoever else), who’s to say their album doesn’t require repeated listens to really assess its potential merits and pitfalls? Something immediately gratifying could later grate badly. If your point is the more you listen to music which you don’t immediately ‘get’, the more you could come round to it - that can work in reverse too. If something lasts the distance, then you probably have a contender for the shortlist. How can anyone assess that on one listen? If a judge isn’t familiar or fond of a particular genre, and/or style of production, they may not even get past those stumbling blocks. Whereas, if a judge likes Rod Steward via home recorded garage and gives RH the instant thumbs up - who’s to say that bears any weight on the ‘quality’ of said album? Apart from adopting your own set of tastes and value judgments, can anyone really judge the quality of an album at large? If your musical tastes and critical faculties are determined by acculturation, repeated listens may well be in order for every album. And then it’s a slippery slope. Why would anyone then presume your critical opinion is worth anything to anyone but yourself? On what merits could you claim to be a judge, or a judge of high calibre?

Sure, there were anomalies (each year there’s the inevitable batch of self-recorded projects that should never leave the bedroom ...

Name names. These could be the most interesting albums of the lot – I’m probably romanticising the possibility of a bunch home-recorded misfits creating future private press classics – but it’d be interesting to hear what was so readily dismissed.

Of the AMP’s 40 judges, 13 are so-called critics, six work in radio and nine are retailers. I’d say the vast majority of these judges will listen to 100 new Australian record in an average year. The remaining 12 judges are mostly working musicians; most of whom, I believe, would fall way short of that benchmark. The reason is simple … it’s not their job to listen to music for a living. It’s their job to play it. (Unless, of course, you’re Robert Forster, the only guy in Australia who effectively straddles both worlds.)

Can you explain the difference between ''so-called critics'' and legitimate critics? By extension, how can you say with a straight face that its “[musicians] job to play [music]” and not to criticise it? (And excluding Robert Forster? Forster praises Sarah Blasko’s album as a masterpiece while completely ignoring all the vibrant underground music scenes that would have birthed the Go-Betweens - scenes that would never have birthed Sarah Blasko). Many arts funding programs involve artist peers on their judging panels, presumably their opinions are respected as they are connected to their discipline, and importantly, the associated community - this provides an inside perspective not only on the subjective issue of quality, but an understanding of an applicants place in the community at large. I doubt many a critic locked away in their own room is likely to have as much idea about what is happening on the ground.


MalikVerlag  said about 2 years ago:

Professional musicians tour. They live and work overseas. They bunker down in studios for six to eight weeks, and mix records in impossibly expensive Los Angeles suites for another four.

Professional musician is an odd term, and this studio scenario sounds like an ’80s fantasy. How many musicians on your ideal shortlist actually earn their living from music and work in this way? Very few I would say. The ‘professional’ musicians that do make a living from music in this country are probably the least likely to be presenting anything ‘difficult’, and the least likely to create excitement if they were awarded the AMP. A lot of musicians work in shitty dead-end jobs, having turned their back on 'respectable' education and employment in order to immerse themselves in music. Aside from playing music, most musicians would attend an endless stream of gigs, and constantly listen to music. Most musicians could easily listen to 100 Australian albums in a month if given the task. It might be the only thing that makes their day jobs bearable. If an average commute time to work is 40 minutes, that’s approximately two albums a day. Throw in another five or six while working in the kitchen, factory or office – and you’re well on your way.

Does this leave much time to delve into Dick Diver’s suburban imagery, or fully absorb Collarbones’ complex weave of snippets and samples from the entire history of pop?

Yes. Probably far more than a “so-called critic” who has to on first listen, critique the next shitty album some PR company sent them in an attempt to scrimp together their paycheck.

Then there’s that unspoken musician’s code: how can you pass judgment on a peer when you empathise with their struggle?

Because, intentionally or inadvertently, you develop your critical faculties while exploring all the music you come into contact with while developing your own “craft”. You discuss and critique music with a lot of people. You listen to music far more actively and analytically than your average joe. And because the world has far too many shitty bands in it to give a free-kick to every motherfucker calling themselves a musician.

If you cross that line, does that make you a critic? And if you’re a critic, doesn’t that make you “the enemy”?

No, it makes you more engaged. Sure a lot of people are reluctant to slag their friends bands to their faces, or in print. But if musicians only befriend people whose music they liked, they wouldn’t have many friends. Critical feedback is usually far more valuable when coming from a musician whose work you admire than anyone involved in 'pro' music journalism – most of these critics just provide fodder for self-gratification, your next arts grant application or press release. What makes someone the enemy is when they have shitty taste combined with a position potentially wielding some influence. Like how people hate-on Kingsmill because they claim he is not supportive of Australia’s musical underground, and bizarrely, Mess+Noise appears to hate itself for over-reporting a certain mainstream artist while falling short of the same charge. It’s a wonderfully weird world.

Musicians invariably have the loudest voices in these meetings, and are arguably the most critically ill-informed. They also seem to value musicianship above all else, which probably explains why the shortlist is stacked with incredible singers, impeccable players and crisp production at the behest of more scruffier, challenging material by acts such as Harmony, Royal Headache, or Total Control.

Reading between the lines, what you are saying is that it is not musician-judges who are the problem - it is the ‘type‘ of musicians who are on the panel. I don’t know any musician worth their salt who places musicianship above passion-meets-creativity (for want of better words). And if it IS the type of musician that is the problem, the same could easily be said of any critic, radio employee, retailer, etc. So if the problem was the calibre of the judges – did we get what we deserve? A stupidly irrelevant opinion? This panel could be made up of critics and or musos, but who gets to judge the judges before they get to judge? I’d say if you want the AMP to have any relevance, give the scruffy and challenging bands that vote.


mule  said about 2 years ago:

This thread was a good read. I guess what really needs to be assessed is the purpose of the award in the first place. It would be cool if their was an award that acknowledged bands that don't get played on JJJ or play the enmore theatre and such - from what i gather there are a lot of politics that surround a bands gradual rising up the ranks.

For the most the bands that get onto these sorts of lists haven't risen up through amassing a strong fan base and then getting played on JJJ, it's like once they get picked up by promoters and jjj etc. they get a fan base, cause the public (not musicians or even massive music fans) are fed this stuff and essentially told what to like (not to discredit bands on the list, they make good music). i find it really cool that royal headache have become a name band by just playing good fucking music and getting people excited about it - they never really gave a shit about making it big, they just wanted to make good music - which i think is something that should be rewarded.

Also it's cool to see these guys going over to America and getting the recognition they deserve, without industry support. It seems that industry support is a prerequisite to get on these award lists, and obviously from what darren was writing he has a pretty skewed view of the way a lot of people (i know of at least) go about recording music and living their lives.

music is different these days, you can have a diy approach and release albums and tour overseas with minimal label hype and be a great band. it seems that these awards always tend to award bands that are also ingrained in the industry in some way, which i think takes away the punch that these awards can have. instead there is no punch, no vitality to the award, and that needs to be worked out.

after reading all this stuff i don't think the problem is really a matter of whether musicians or critics are on the award panel - it's that the award doesn't have a clear purpose...maybe if it had one everyone could work towards a common goal, instead of inanely bickering about it.


anonymous  said about 2 years ago:

Australian Music Prize Responds To Backlash, “Tweaks” Entry Rules

Written by Al Newstead on 14 June 2012

The Australian Music Prize, or The AMP, is looking at rehauling its rules and guidelines, starting with scrapping the entry fee for artists to enter into consideration for the prize.

The Music, the official online partner of the AMP, reports that prize director Scott Murphy talked of plans to rework the entry system for this year’s award in the hopes that it will encourage a larger number of entrants, with a wider pool of artists and genres, to consider entering into the prize.

Originally formed in 2005, the AMP is considered the equivalent of the UK’s Barclaycard Mercury Music Prize, in that recognises an Australian artist with a cash prize based on the decision of a judging panel charged with selecting the Australian Album of the Year.

The inaugural winner was The Drones, for Wait Long By The River And The Bodies of You Enemies Will Float By in 2005. Other previous prize recipients include Augie March (for Moo, You Bloody Choir in 2006), Lisa Mitchell (for Wonder in 2009) and The Jezabels, who took home $30,000 donated by the Phonographic Performance Company of Australia Limited (PPCA).

Last year’s awards ceremony was also the first in which the public could attend the announcement of the AMP winner. Held in March last year, at Sydney’s iconic music venue, The Basement (which has just been put up for public sale) the event was made open to the public, keynote speaker, industry professionals and, of course, the AMP nominees.

The changes to this year’s entry guidelines signals a further push to making the music prize as democratic as possible. While Murphy stated that the prize regularly undergoes annual “tweaks”, the changes could be in response to the mild controversy surrounding The Jezabels’ win last year with Prisoner.

The backlash arose from concerns that the prize was bestowed upon a band that had already received widespread attention, was contrary to the independent ideals of the AMP. Even forcing the quartet to issue a statement with their acceptance of the 2010 prize, stating:

“What is clear throughout all the difference of opinion, regarding both the politics of the prize and musical tastes, is that The AMP is made up of people who care a great deal about Australian music and the importance of maintaining the ideals that the prize has come to represent, the encouragement of excellence and quality in Australian albums, regardless of their popularity or success, but to also recognise that those things are not mutually exclusive.”

Along with the new ‘free entry’ policy, Murphy’s ‘tweaks’ also reportedly include an extension to the judging period for this year’s award, later than the typical September/October period. A full announcement of the new entry process is to be delivered next week.


josejones  said about 2 years ago:

it's all well and good making it free, but that's not going to fix the inherent problem with the amp, and that's the judging panel.

also, the ceremony was held at the opera house, not the basement as reported above.


unvisible  said about 2 years ago:

Congratulations to the AMP winners for 2013, Grinspoon!


josejones  said about 2 years ago:

my money is on Last Dinosaurs or The Medics


anonymous  said about 2 years ago:

Hope $hmyl's album is out this year.


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