Earlier this week, Montreal producer and artist Kaytranada's 99.9% won the prestigious Polaris Music Prize, an award given to the most excellent Canadian album of the year. The prize, which has only been around for a decade, is awarded based on the selections of a jury comprised of music journalists, critics, radio programmers, and more. Artists or representatives can't submit their own records, and none of the jury members can have ties to the artists chosen. The emphasis, overall, is to nominate and award music on merits beyond commercial success; in past years, independent Canadian acts like Arcade Fire, Caribou, and Feist have all won. The fact that 99.9% — a sharp, unique full-length debut from an artist who was a DIY SoundCloud producer with a handful of viral remixes just a few years ago — beat out more popular records like Grimes's Art Angels and Carly Rae Jepsen's Emotion proves that the Polaris Prize is looking to do more than just celebrate well-established favorites.
The Polaris Prize is on the vanguard of an innovative kind of cultural award that's newly in vogue. It's most similar to the U.K.'s 24-year-old Mercury Prize (awarded this year to Skepta's Konnichiwa), where a committee of music journalists, producers, musicians, festival bookers, and others choose a shortlist of British albums each year and then elect the best. These prizes come with monetary awards in addition to a trophy; for Mercury, it's £25,000, while the Polaris winner receives $50,000 Canadian. The Australian Music Prize, established in 2005, also emphasizes supporting creative excellence rather than chart-topping records, as do recent equivalents like New Zealand's Taite Music Prize and the Nordic Music Prize (which honors albums from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland).
America is just joining this game, having introduced the American Music Prize about a year ago. That award was founded by Scott B. Murphy, the same person who established Australia's equivalent prize, and it provides $25,000 to a rising American artist with a debut album. Kendrick Lamar collaborator Kamasi Washington's cosmic-jazz triple-album The Epic won the first-ever award this March, besting shortlisted artists like Shamir, Azealia Banks, Natalie Prass, and Bully. But Washington's win came with relatively little fanfare: There was a party in Nashville, but it wasn't televised, and many music fans could be forgiven for having failed to notice that it happened at all. And while the AMP is understandably still a baby awards show, it's surprising that it's taken so long for America to create a prize like this, especially when talented artists from all but the most lucrative levels of the music industry could desperately use the recognition.
America certainly isn't averse to music awards shows: Millions of fans tune in each year to watch the Grammys, the Billboard Music Awards, the American Music Awards, the Country Music Association Awards, the Academy of Country Music Awards, the BET Awards, the Soul Train Awards, and of course MTV's own Video Music Awards. But aside from the odd surprise (Troye Sivan here, Alabama Shakes there) you can expect to see all the most familiar faces of the most popular artists in a given genre on these shows. Not that there's anything wrong with that — popular artists have tons of people who want to see them, by definition — but what about artists who fall a little further from center? When you have ceremonies like the Billboard Awards, which hands out prizes based solely on chart performance, and the Grammys, which are decided by the not particularly diverse Recording Academy — in other words, musicians, producers, engineers, and executives who are already well established in the music industry — what you get is an echo chamber. For the major American music awards, it seems that fame always takes a front seat when it comes to winning and being nominated.
What makes prizes like Mercury and Polaris so special is the way they even the playing field. There's no "Best Rock Performance" or "Best Dance/Electronic Album." Women and male pop stars aren't limited to performance awards based on their specific genders. Minimalist electronic songwriter Jessy Lanza can be considered for the same prize as a megastar like Drake; FKA twigs and Damon Albarn, leading lights of two very different generations and scenes, can stand side by side as representatives of English artistry. Clean and simple, an album prize recognizes good music regardless of barriers. And while celebrating rising acts ends up being a footnote at most American ceremonies, awards like Polaris and Mercury emphasize elevating new talent in ways that can dramatically help boost winners' and nominees' careers.
The AMP is just beginning, and it may take years for it to become as prestigious as Mercury and Polaris already are in their home countries. Ultimately, what will decide its impact is the continued support of genuinely good, new, surprising music — beyond the approved benchmarks for popularity. As prizes in other countries continue to honor great music that too many American award shows ignore, it's becoming glaringly obvious that rising musicians in the U.S. could use the leg up.