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?
The seventh-annual Australian Music Prize will be announced in Sydney today. M+N editor Darren Levin is a judge.
The AMP Shortlist
Boy & Bear
Jack Ladder and The Dreamlanders
The Middle East
I Want That You Are Always Happy