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Sunday, 20 November 2011

The BBC folk awards, raising the blood pressure of folkies everywhere

So the nominations for the BBC Radio Two folk awards 2012 were announced on Wednesday and there's already been a scrap about it.

I was especially interested in all this as I recently discovered that a good friend is a judge for them and asked him to do an interview on the subject.

While being generally helpful, my friend's main concern was that he was under the impression that he wasn't supposed to tell anyone that he was one of the judges, having signed a piece of paper seven or eight years ago when first invited to take part, agreeing not to nominate anyone with whom he has a business relationship and also not - he thought - to broadcast the fact that he's on the panel.

"I think there are somewhere between 150 and 180 of us from all over the music business: PRs, festival organisers, that kind of thing," he said, once we'd agreed that I wouldn't use his name.

"I think I probably know about 100 of them. If you go to the folk awards and look around you can make an educated guess about who they are. There are two levels: the general level and the people who are behind the major awards like the lifetime achievement award. That's up to the company - Smooth Operations", which is contracted by the BBC to produce some radio shows, including Mike Harding's, as well as the folk awards.

"I get a form asking me to nominate up to three artists in each category, from which the company takes the four most nominated for the shortlist. Then we get to vote again for the winner.

"In terms of how I make my nominations, I just keep my ears open. I buy a load of stuff and I get a load of stuff given to me during the course of the year. I suppose the thing the judges have in common is that we're in a position to find out what's out there by going to festivals and listening to music in general. In some ways I wish the list of judges was public because it might save me some of the money I spend buying CDs.

"I think there are probably a lot of women on the panel because those are the people who work in the industry. And as with any sort of award you are going to get a lot of griping by people whose taste doesn't match the judges'. Folkies have a great sense of ownership over the scene."

I wondered why my friend was not supposed to let on about being a judge? I'd think that must be counterproductive, since it makes it much harder for musicians with no real knowledge of the folk scene to get their stuff heard by people with influence. And this in turn would create a bit of a ghetto-ish vibe.

The sort of vibe that, for instance, might lead you to wonder when you compared the list of nominees with the list of this man's clients, whether there was some kind of a stitch up going on? By my reckoning there's about a 50 per cent correlation between those two lists (though interestingly it's the newcomers and the best live act nominees - the two sections with the least opportunity for middle-man input - that most noticeably buck the trend).

In a small scene there are several possible explanations for this, since causation could go either way. By this I mean that it's possible Alan Bearman is such an amazing and powerful agent that he is most folk musicians' first choice.  Or that it's such a small scene that he's the only agent some folkies have heard of when they're looking around for representation. Weirdly, though, in the three or four years since I've been writing about folk I don't think I've ever met or heard from him.

So I asked Mike Harding - the BBC's best known folk DJ and the presenter of the awards - why the names of the judges are secret? And, um, he said that they aren't. In fact, he suggested that I get in touch with BBC compliance department to get hold of the list.

It was the work of a minute to get through to Julian Grundy in compliance, who was helpfulness itself and pointed me back to Smooth Operations, who are responsible for the running of the awards. I went through to a Viv Atkinson there, who told me that Kellie While was my woman.

I've lopped the bottom off this email because it had her mobile phone number on it.

Things went a bit quiet for a day or so and in the mean time I went off to Salisbury to interview Richard Shindell. Then...

In case you can't read that last one (I can't), it says

Hi Kellie,

Some points about the status quo.

(1) If you think the judges aren't susceptible to the fact that the bigger record companies get their stuff circulated better than smaller ones (or artists with no label), I think you are mistaken. They are exactly as susceptible as everyone else. By not printing their names you make it impossible for unsigned artists and smaller bands with little marketing and PR to attract their attention at all because no one knows who they are. A list would mean they would know where to send their stuff. This keeps the playing field as uneven as it always was. I would argue more so, because big labels aren't signing anyone much these days, they're all in such trouble. The internet has flattened the market place, giving an advantage to those signed to small labels known to be folky already. This creates the cabal we've been talking about. 

(2) On the other hand, if the BBC's position is that the judges are susceptible to this kind of lobbying, I hope it wouldn't be impolite to suggest that it might consider choosing its judges more carefully.

(3) Secrecy is inherently wrong. It makes the judges feel as if they've "made it" but it's not appropriate in the present political climate (see my earlier point about MPs and journalists), let alone in a democratic country. Let alone for some folk awards run in association with the BBC, which is partly funded by the taxpayer.

(4) You can't argue that the internet has made everything available to everyone in the folk world. I've never come across a group of people less plugged in to the internet. Many of the top bands and artists aren't on Twitter, many of the PRs don't know how it works, and there's someone involved in managing both Bellowhead and Seth Lakeman who doesn't even have his phone number on his website! 

(5) There is such secrecy surrounding the folk awards that I know a judge who is convinced that he is supposed to be keeping his identity a secret - even though you say there is no such clause in the contract! 

I think it's the BBC Folk Awards's job to draw attention to the best of British folk, which means throwing itself open to all comers.  I can see that you're giving it some thought but isn't it time the awards made some concessions to the 21st century? It might also have the knock-on effect of making the outcome of the awards less predictable and making the entire scene more interesting to non-folkies. Surely the point of it is to market folk, not preach to the converted?  


I've since put in a couple of calls asking whose decision it is not to publish the list of judges, as in "we have discussed this issue at great length", but after three days have heard nothing. I suppose my last email was a bit ranty.

If I hear anything from Smooth Operations I'll let you know.

* Read the next post about the BBC folk awards

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  1. I know two judges who have been on the panel for years.

    I doubt either of them have been to more than one festival in the past five years except possibly Cropedy.

    One goes to a monthly folk club a few concerts and a few sessions.

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  3. Whilst there is no clear view on what folk music is, one generally accepted component is “concerned with and involving the lives of ordinary people” – interesting then that a major folk event disenfranchises ordinary people in favour of a shadowy group of insiders. The whole thing demonstrates why folk is a closet interest; if this is typical it’s managed by closet people.

  4. very interesting, secrecy breeds corruption not being open and sharing with all who is doing what, surprised the BBC allows it to go on!

  5. Why not limit the number of nominations any act or name on the folk awards can receive to no more than two? Also, what's got up a lot of peoples noses is the appearance or reappearance of a relatively small number of already successful and well known names in this years nominations list. Its about time we had a bit of fresh blood and took a slightly wider view of what folk is and who is doing well. The job has been well done up until now, but maybe now is the time for a rethink and a bit of a change!

  6. I like the idea of secret judges... artists cannot influence the judges if they do not know who they are. Folk music is for all, not just for the best connected.

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