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Smoke And Mirrors: The NI Music Prize


Award ceremonies are a strange beast, a curious mixture of the repellently naff and the irresistibly enticing. Regardless of what they might claim, everyone loves a pat on the back, the feeling of being vindicated in front of one’s peers, and the opportunity to revel in a sense of achievement. There ain’t nothing wrong with that, and when someone wins an award, they can be humble and bashful, or belligerently arrogant, but the result is the same – you feel good.

On the other hand, if you don’t win, it’s all gravy, you never respected the thing in the first place, and these idiots don’t get you; you’re better than this, right? It’s the perfect creation, something that can be justified as worthless and worthwhile at the same time. They’re foolproof, and there’s not a damn thing that anyone can do about it.

With Belfast Music Week gearing up for action in November, a central part of the creative puzzle is sure to be the inaugural Northern Irish Music Prize (let’s ignore the Northern Irish Music Awards from a year or so ago, they were slightly different, and therefore don’t count). The NI Music Prize is essentially a ‘best album’ competition, with an ‘Academy’ of experts drawn from journalists, broadcasters, and bloggers making a shortlist of Northern Irish albums that will be whittled down to one, with the winner being announced in a gala ceremony in Belfast’s Mandela Hall on the 12th of November.

The shortlist has already been announced, with the likes of Girls Names, And So I Watch You From Afar, Two Door Cinema Club, A Plastic Rose, Trucker Diablo, and others, battling it out to claim victory. A further panel of experts will pick the one they think is best, and we’ll all argue and fall out with each other as we debate the relative merits of their decision. The event costs £10 to get into, and a selection of the artists will perform on the night.

So far, so good, right?

But something about this doesn’t feel quite right. The legitimacy of the event is already being called into question, social media awash with sentiments like, “Who do they think they are, telling us what to think?” or “Once again, the Belfast indie cliques have ignored (insert genre here)”. Whilst these sentiments are entirely relevant, they also ignore the central truth of an event like this – someone has to be the judge, and someone has to pick the winner, and whether we like it or not, personal preference is going to come into that decision. It’s just human nature, and there ain’t a whole lot we can do about that. Arguing that the panel will have acted in their own interests is a bit like arguing with rain; you might not like it, but that’s just the way things are.

However, there’s still a lingering feeling that the NI Music Prize is missing the point somehow. Belfast Music Week is now in its fourth year, and the placing of the prize right in the heart of it, seems to lend the event some kind of credibility, as if saying, “We’re the industry, this is our showcase, and winning this will be a Big Deal.” The website confirms this, telling us that, “NI music is experiencing a creative boom,” and that the awards will draw attention to “local successes” and provide a “critical benchmark”. But is any of that really true? Despite a whole heap of good gigs and some fond memories, has Music Week had any incredible successes within the world at large to shout about? Have we seen many bands play a showcase gig and then go on to conquer the world? Is Northern Irish music being taken any more seriously outside of Northern Ireland because of it? Hell, is Northern Irish music being taken any more seriously in Northern Ireland because of it?

Looking at the list, there’s plenty to enjoy, with all of the records having their fair share of strong moments. But do they constitute a “creative boom”? I‘m not sure they do. The most commercially successful album on the list is arguably Two Door Cinema Club’s Beacon, a record which has been certified gold in the UK. But, putting aside personal preference for one moment, Beacon feels like an inferior follow-up to their debut, and whilst a gold record is not to be sniffed at, it does still feel like it underperformed, given the weight of expectation placed upon it.

Gary Lightbody’s Tired Pony, his collaboration with REM’s Peter Buck, makes the list, but does it say something that of all the records that could qualify for a Northern Irish music prize, a place on the shortlist went to someone who doesn’t live here, in a band that is made up of different nationalities, was co-wirtten with an American, and has scant relevance to Northern Ireland? I’m not knocking the album – on the contrary, I thought it was very good – but how it could qualify for this, other than as a ‘thank you’ for the incredible support Gary Lightbody has given Northern Irish music in recent years, is beyond me.

Colonel Blood, Fighting With Wire’s long-awaited second album makes the grade. But whilst there’s plenty of great tunes on the album, what can be accomplished by giving the prize to a band who are no longer with us? In what way does the prize celebrate the strength of the Northern Irish music scene if it’s awarded to a band that have split up?

You could argue the toss all day, but still not come to any satisfying conclusion, and in a way, that’s kinda the point of an awards competition. I can’t escape from the fact that these are my opinions, and literally anyone could argue the opposite and have just as valid a point. I mean, why was Desert Hearts’ incredible third album overlooked? That’s a crime, man.

But taking the subjective out of the argument, it’s difficult to see what these awards are trying to accomplish beyond perpetuating their own existence. Regardless of what terms we throw about, Northern Ireland does not have a music industry. It’s traditionally been hard to ‘make it’ as a musician from Northern Ireland, and that certainly hasn’t changed in recent years. But to issue a self-aggrandising award that allows us to pat ourselves on the back and say how great we are, doesn’t convincingly advance the cause of the struggling Northern Irish musician.

It’s not clear at this stage what the actual ‘prize’ in these awards is, but I worry that all it will amount to is the ‘glory’ of being able to say that someone voted you the best Northern Irish album of the year, an accolade that could conceivably only mean something in Northern Ireland. In sales terms, that’s unlikely to make any real impact, and it won’t go any way to undoing some of the lukewarm press that several of these records received outside of Northern Ireland. Really, I’m worried that something has been set up, something which has been funded in part by Belfast City Council, something that will dip into the limited funding available for arts in Northern Ireland, and all it will accomplish is to bring itself back for another year, and to tick a box in a government document relating to arts funding or tourism. The artists won’t benefit from it, but we’ll be one step closer to proving we have a ‘thriving creative industry’ here.

This, I’m well aware, is not going to be a popular opinion, but lets explore how it could work. For the Northern Ireland Music Prize to have any relevance, it will have to have an international profile. If this prize isn’t drawing attention to artists outside of their home country, then it is ultimately a flawed waste of money. Secondly, the awards need to find some way of engaging with the music industry, allowing the seeds that have clearly been sown here to flourish. Getting a ‘Best Album’ award is perfectly fine; getting a meeting with the A&R department of a major record label is arguably a great deal more worthwhile. And if we can forge those ties, then there’s every chance that Northern Ireland could become a small, but significant part of the music industry in the UK.

If we’re able to avoid preaching to the converted, then the notion of winning a Northern Irish music prize might actually start to mean something, might be something worth striving for. But how do you make the rest of the world take notice? After all, the music industry isn’t in great health, and music seems to have lost a great deal of its cultural currency in recent years. One solution might be to examine the nature of what’s being celebrated in these awards. As much as it pains me to admit it, as far as contemporary music goes, it looks like the day of the ‘album’ is over. They aren’t selling the way they used to, and the concept doesn’t seem to have to the relevance it once had. For a lot of contemporary artists, an ‘album’ is a grouping of whatever songs they happen to have, rather than a unified and cohesive artistic statement.

So maybe we don’t celebrate the album? So what, if some of these albums on the shortlist aren’t as strong as they could be? Some of the individual tracks upon them could easily compete with any other artist on an international scale. And in a world of youtube videos, of soundcloud, and embedded audio, the chances of one excellent song being catapulted around the world are a great deal higher than someone scoring a hit album. Whilst it’s not particularly satisfying to say so, a synch deal in an advert or in a film is more rewarding than a critically acclaimed album, and can keep an artist afloat for a lot longer than a Best Album award.

But this is all talk for the future. Come the 12th of November, in the Mandela Hall, we are going to find out who has been voted the best album of the year. And then we can see what happens. And in an ideal world, we can learn from this experience. I think the idea of the Northern Irish Music Prize is a good one, and if it can go some way to convincing the rest of the world what we already know here, then we could really be on to something. Steven Rainey

is a writer and broadcaster who has spent his entire life being an elderly version of himself. He believes in the power of True Rock, and discovered heavy metal at the age of 30. He has never married, but has been divorced twice.