The Australian Music Prize for the best Australian album of the year is awarded on Friday (early disclosure: I will be part of the judging panel again, as I have been since its inception) and the Shortlist is excitingly diverse and fascinating.
Sampa The Great – Birds And The BEE9
Paul Kelly – Life Is Fine
Jen Cloher – Jen Cloher
The Vampires – The Vampires Meet Lionel Loueke
Beaches – Second Of Spring
HTML Flowers – Chrome Halo
Liars – TFCF
Darcy Baylis – Intimacy & Isolation
Jordan Rakei – Wallflower
But in 2009, four years into the AMP, there were questions the prize, and we judges, had to address. Was this award, like the industry it was celebrating, stuck in a blokey, rock-centred, safe world too scared of the different to see the obvious?
It’s interesting to note what’s changed since then. In the AMP at least. Whether those changes have spread throughout Australian music is an open question. But for now, let’s get righteous in 2009.
TIME TO ROCK THE ROCK BOAT?
It's funny to be talking about fear amid the high-fives being doled out across the music industry since Friday's announcement of this year's winner of the Australian Music Prize. But I can't help but ask who is afraid of pop music?
Of hip-hop, electronica and the avant-garde? And, most particularly, of women?
In four years the $30,000 Australian Music Prize has become not just the most lucrative contemporary music award but possibly the most respected.
One reason for this respect is that the AMP, based on the UK’s 18 year old Mercury Prize, rewards those albums on quality not quantity (of sales) or notoriety and draws its judges from fellow artists in a variety of genres, specialist retailers and the media.
That is to be admired and why I have been one of the judges from its first year. Pompous as it may sound, I think there's a place for taking contemporary popular music seriously occasionally.
But what are we to make of the fact that for the fourth successive year the AMP has gone to a male rock band?
On Friday, Melbourne four piece Eddy Current Suppression Ring joined previous winners, Mess Hall, Augie March and the Drones, four bands almost exclusively male (the five piece Drones have a woman); playing with some combination of drums/guitars; and making music drawn from the traditional wellsprings of the past 50 years of rock music.
In the same period, and incidentally also in its first four years, the Mercury Prize went to two rock bands, one pop and one avant-garde act.
There is nothing wrong with any of the AMP-winning bands. Two of them are among the best acts we have produced, the other two may get there too in a few years.
However, I don't think anyone could argue that we the judges have fallen short if over the past four years only five women and two predominantly female groups have made it into the Shortlist, from which the winner is selected, compared with 29 men or predominantly male bands.
Furthermore, as someone who has participated in all the judging, I can tell you that in no year did a woman or a female act seriously contend in the final stages of voting though I would argue that some of the most outstanding Australian music in the time was made by women.
This is a failure, for common sense would tell you that there were not four times as many men as women making high-quality music in those years and one of these women might have deserved to win.
Hip hop, a smaller proportion of the Australian market than in the USA or the UK but nonetheless a thriving segment, has had only two albums in the Shortlist while acts you could call pop – their emphasis on melodies, catchy hooks and wider instrumentation -could muster only six appearances in the Shortlist.
In addition, acoustic/non-rock albums, in a style of music you could describe as melodic, adult-oriented and sophisticated, whether in the hands of singer/songwriters or bands more inclined to story-telling, also had six nominations in the Shortlist. While at best you could say one act in four years would have fallen into an outsider/avant-garde field.
The usual accusation thrown at the more serious competitions such as the AMP is that it reflects the middle-age male bias of rock criticism. And it is true that, females are outnumbered two to one on the panel of 23 judges.
But assuming that just because you are a woman you would vote for a female artist is the kind of reductive thinking which doesn't last long inside any judging room or for that matter any gig.
More broadly, eight judges are active artists, four are retailers and of the 11 media, including television and radio, only some of the eight would be guilty as charged as blatantly middle-aged men.
I have seen no institutional bias. The discussions in the judging room are about the passion particular acts inspire, the originality displayed, the power of persuasion on display in the songs.
In fact if you ask any of the judges we would all tell you that we don't have any barriers to particular genres or artists; that it's all about the quality of the music. And we would mean it.
Of course, it's not entirely true. It's a subjective exercise and all of us have preferences and prejudices. Most importantly we are all products of a broader musical culture in Australia – in the industry, the media and the public - which has never completely reconciled itself to well-made pop being as "important" as guitar based rock; which has trouble with Australian accented hip hop in particular and hip hop in general; which sees melody driven music as inherently unchallenging and electronic music as smart but a fringe activity.
The issue is not whether we are getting worthy winners in the Australian Music Prize but whether all potential candidates are received and respected in the same way.
I am not sure that they are.
AUSTRALIAN MUSIC PRIZE WINNERS
2005: The Drones – Wait Long By The River And The Bodies Of Your Enemies Will Float By
2006: Augie March - Moo, You Bloody Choir
2007: The Mess Hall – Devil’s Elbow
2008: Eddy Current Suppression Ring - Primary Colours
2009: Lisa Mitchell – Wonder
2010: Cloud Control - Bliss Release
2011: The Jezebels – Prisoner
2012: Hermitude – HyperParadise
2013: Big Scary - Not Art
2014: REMI - Raw X Infinity
2015: Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
2016: A.B. Original - Reclaim Australia