Sunday, April 4, 2004

These are no great revelations, of course
In what seems - if I might say so myself - a response to my piece earlier this week, Ben Rayner writes of his own Juno complaints this weekend. We disagree on several issues - or maybe just give greater priority to different concerns.

Here's my take from earlier this week (with correction appended):

Shipping and handling:
Prior to this year's popularity contest, the music industry reveals how it measures success
Aaron Wherry - National Post
Thursday, April 1, 2004

One imagines it's pretty difficult to screw up an interview with TV Guide. With all due respect to those who toil under its banner, it is not their duty to expose or investigate, but rather to simply promote what's worth watching.

So it was somewhat surprising to see the Juno Awards' many failings laid bare, if only by coincidence, in the pages of this week's magazine -- all in one breathless statement from ceremony producer John Brunton.

In explaining why nominations for the show's most celebrated categories are determined solely by sales, Brunton remarked: "I think the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences are very transparent about this."

Of course, it's a complete lack of transparency in this regard that has so tarnished the Junos this year. In fact, the only thing "transparent" about the Junos is this: 33 years into their existence they have clearly become little more than a publicly funded promotional tool for the multinational record labels (EMI, Warner, Song/BMG and Universal) who dominate this country's recording industry.

All things considered, you're left with a national awards show teetering on the verge of irrelevance.

Back in February, CARAS, the industry group that oversees the awards, was forced to acknowledge that a "data entry error" had excluded Nickelback's The Long Road from album of the year consideration -- one of the categories determined solely by "sales."

To make amends, The Long Road was added to the nominees list, but no album was subsequently dropped. The move was surely meant to appease all parties -- the subtraction of a nomination sure to anger whomever had originally believed themselves to be nominated (in this case, though CARAS wouldn't comment on the matter -- how's that for transparency? -- Nelly Furtado's Folklore was found to be the likely "sixth" nominee).

But the idea of six nominees for one category -- and the possibility one undeserving nominee might end up the winner (ultimate winners are determined by a vote of CARAS members), raised questions about the process. Those questions led to a rather embarrassing admission.

Under pressure, CARAS officials acknowledged that the categories based on "sales" were, in fact, based on albums "shipped." It may seem simply a matter of industry jargon -- but the difference is distinct and important.

The former, measured by Nielsen SoundScan, is a tally of total albums sold at point of purchase. The latter refers to the number of albums sent from record labels to stores.

Put plainly, a record label might ship 50,000 records to HMV, but only sell 30,000. In this case, only the first figure would matter.

"That's outrageous," snapped Billboard magazine's Canadian bureau chief and long-time industry observer Larry LeBlanc at the time. "I can't believe that. Ship-out figures can be manipulated, they can be switched around to look better for almost anything, and ship-out doesn't really show anything but what went out of the branch. They are not a true indicator of actual sales. And one of the reasons why the industry demanded something like SoundScan was the inaccuracy of ship-out figures."

The admission revealed the Junos to be an awards show systemically built to favour major label artists like Nickelback, Shania Twain, Avril Lavigne, Celine Dion and the Barenaked Ladies.

Smaller and independent labels and artists can't afford to ship out the mass quantities of records required to compete in the top categories -- including album, artist and group of the year (new artist and new group take shipped into account, but also include panel voting in the nomination process).

But the current state of affairs benefits those involved. It might be giving too much credit to all parties to suggest a vast conspiracy is at play, but, if only by happenstance, a system now exists wherein the already rewarded receive only greater reward, while everyone else is left wanting.

Consider that CARAS needs major label stars to promote each year's show, while major labels love the exposure a national audience can provide.

Major labels quite generously cover all the costs associated with bringing their stars to each show. They then happily accept a favourable nomination system. And the resulting exposure offers a little help in selling all those albums they shipped -- last year's Nickelback's sales, according to SoundScan, doubled in the week after the Junos.

CARAS gets star power to promote its long-ignored show, increase ratings and, conceivably, earn more advertising dollars.

Meanwhile the folly of major label dominance wouldn't be so pronounced if it weren't for the fact the Canadian music community is experiencing something of an unprecedented indie renaissance. This, for the most part, has been ignored by Juno organizers -- up-and-coming bands are relegated to Juno week festivities (generally ignored outside the community hosting the awards) or celebrated only at the non-televised portion of the ceremony (as Broken Social Scene were for You Forgot It In People last year).

In that aforementioned TV Guide piece, even Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger -- someone who has benefited greatly from the flawed awards criteria -- had to acknowledge the error.

"Most fans don't even realize sales are a factor in those awards. It's not really the best, it's best of the best-sellers," he said. "It turns into a big popularity contest. There are bands I adore that have never won. So us having a stack, that doesn't make us any better of a band. If you're already a top seller, you don't really need an award for that, do you?"

The Juno's tricky relationship with transparency -- sometimes attempting it, often only to reveal more flaws; other times outright rejecting the concept -- extends to their public funding. Ask them how much money they receive each year and you'll be told they "don't disclose that info."

Oddly enough, the federal government does. And according to their records, this year's ceremony has been approved for $300,000 in loans through Canadian Heritage's Canada Music Fund. The Edmonton Journal has tallied another $365,000 in city and provincial funding. Maybe all this major label, multi-millionaire back-slapping might not be so troublesome if it weren't that Canadian taxpayers were footing at least part of the bill.

On the cover of TV Guide, their rather inadvertently remarkable story is promoted as "Avril Lavigne, Sarah McLachlan & Nickelback explain why the Junos matter." Such a title reeks of insecurity -- when was the last time anything of importance felt the need to explain its own relevance? In the past this insecurity could be blamed on that all-too-Canadian feeling of inferiority. Now it might have more to do with an institution that is truly lacking credibility.

CORRECTION: (From National Post, April 2, 2004) In an article in this week's TV Guide on the 2004 Juno Awards, Oh Susanna, a singer and songwriter, said, "Most fans don't even realize sales are a factor in those awards. It's not really the best, it's best of the best-sellers." This quotation was incorrectly attributed in yesterday's National Post. The Post regrets the error.*****

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