Does Ireland's Meteor Choice Music Prize really matter?

Does Ireland's Meteor Choice Music Prize really matter?

DURING the ’80s I was asked by Greek TV to sum up the Irish music scene, which I managed to do in about 15 seconds mentioning U2, Van Morrison, Sinéad O’Connor, Daniel O’Donnell — I never varnish my truth! — and a rich folk tradition embodied by the likes of the Hothouse Flowers.

Nowadays I’d need a whole hour to do justice to the diversity of the bands and solo artists who American trade bible Billboard recently described as “helping Ireland to continually punch above its weight in terms of the impact its music has globally”.

Or if I were pushed for time I’d just get them to listen to the 10 albums that have been shortlisted for the 2014 Meteor Choice Music Prize.

The absence of home-grown hip hop aside — expect that to be remedied in 12 months’ time when the Dublin spitter Lethal Dialect has dropped his remarkable 1988 album — they tell you all there is to know about the contemporary Irish music scene.

Sorry Daniel and the folkie Flowers brigade; this isn’t a party you’re invited to.

At one end of the nomination spectrum you’ve got Coldplay-aping Dubliners Kodaline whose In A Perfect World debut has already gone top 10 on both sides of the Irish Sea and are sure to get a call from U2 the next time they need a support band; on the other there’s Mano Le Tough, the Greystones-born, Berlin-based electronica merchant whose Changing Days album has only made it into mere hundreds of record collections.

Their respective 6/1 and 17/1 Paddy Power odds suggest that Kodaline are most likely to leave Dublin’s Vicar Street venue on February 27 €10,000 the richer, but with media types like Hot Press editor Niall Stokes, BBC Radio Northern Ireland’s Amy McGarrigle, RTÉ Radio One’s Aidan Butler, Today FM’s Colm O’Sullivan and The Irish Post’s very own Steve Cummins doing the picking rather than the public, it’s a tough one to call.

Since its 2005 inception, the Choice has rarely gone to betting form with Julie Feeney’s 13 Songs (2005), Super Extra Bonus Party’s self-titled offering (2007) and Adrian Crowley’s Season Of The Sparks (2009) three of the winning albums that started the night as rank outsiders.

“There’s no ‘typical’ Choice winner; I have my own hunch every year and invariably get it wrong,” laughs award main-man Dave Reid.

“Some people think it should be a public vote, but if you do it that way it’s always going to be the act with the biggest fanbase who wins.

"It’s a bit like the system they have for choosing The Pope — the 10 judges go into a sealed-off room and don’t come out until they’ve arrived at a consensus. The exchange of views can be pretty robust, but you always get an honest and considered outcome.”

Reid is thrilled that in addition to its traditional radio simulcast on Today FM, Choice is set to make its RTÉ 2 television debut with an hour-long highlights programme.

“We’ve been trying for a long time to get TV involved, and this year Bill Malone, the RTÉ 2 station controller, was keen to have Choice on his schedule. It adds to the sense of occasion and, most importantly, gives not just the winners but all of the nominated acts greater exposure.”

Neil Hannon, ever the wag, said in 2006 when The Divine Comedy’s Victory For The Comic Muse won that it would pay for his kitchen extension.

While you imagine the record company-less newcomers among the 2013 nominees – Lisa O’Neill, Girls Names and the aforementioned Mano Le Tough – would welcome having €10,000 to spend on rather more basic things like paying rent and sticking petrol into their van, the real value of the Choice Music Prize lies elsewhere.

“It’s all about the exposure and validation it gives you,” explains Kieran McGuinness from last year’s winners Delorentos.

Little Sparks was our third album and the first time, I think, that we were confident enough to totally ignore outside pressures and make the record we wanted to make. We poured our hearts and souls into it; the lyrics came from a very personal place and by the end of the recording process we felt like we’d given it our all.

“We knew it was a good album, but having 10 industry people who we really respect think it too said to us, ‘You’re not totally deluded. You are doing it right. You’re not a bunch of spoofers!’ That’s fed into our new album, which we’re recording now. We totally trust our own judgement in terms of the songs we’ve written and the sound we’re striving for.”

McGuinness echoes what Dave Reid says about the Choice Music Prize’s credibility hinging on its judging process.

“Public votes are mainstream votes, which can be manipulated by social media and internet jiggery pokery to get the numbers up,” he asserts.

“I’m a great respecter of music fans — I’m one myself! — but by the very nature of their fandom they’re not going to listen to 10 albums and go, ‘Impartially and objectively, this is the best one’.”

Sadly for Delorentos, they had to leave last year’s Choice after-show party early.

“We had our celebratory glasses of champagne at 10 o’clock and seven hours later were on a plane to America where we had a four-week tour booked,” Kieran recalls.

“To be able to say to journalists and DJs there, ‘We just won the album prize back home’ was brilliant. Our Spanish manager was able to use it to get us festivals; it sounds really good in press releases and on posters! Winning the Choice isn’t on its own going to make your career, but there are all sorts of ways in which it’s useful.”

Whereas Ben Howard enjoyed an incredible 2,500% increase in sales last year after winning Britain’s Mercury Music Prize, none of the Choice nominees zoomed up the charts.

“I think the Mercury is a bit more aggressively commercial,” McGuinness proffers.

“It’s impossible to say for certain, but I suspect the AIB choosing one of the Little Sparks tracks, Petardu, for their TV ad had something to do with us being Choice winners. That got us heard by people who’d never known of our existence before.

"We were able to do a big three-gigs-in-a-day thing before Christmas, which we saw a lot of new faces at. There’s definitely more industry interest in our next record as a result of the Choice. Rather than a dramatic increase in sales the week after, it’s been a drip-drip effect which you could argue is more useful.”

On board for the fourth year as official retail partners are HMV who, in addition to their own flagship stores, now have concessions in 26 Xtra-vision outlets and an online shop from which all the Choice titles can be downloaded.

“Our national network of stores allows us to provide tangible support to each of the nominated artists, profiling them in store and hosting a pop-up shop at the awards,” says HMV and Xtra-vision Head of Music Chris Keena.

“We will continue to support Irish artists in-store, online and through live events within our stores throughout 2014.”

Getting a Choice nod is a very big deal for Lisa O’Neill, the Cavan singer-songwriter whose shortlisted Same Cloth Or Not album includes Glen Hansard among its cheerleaders.

“Getting a Choice nomination wasn’t a wish or part of the plan,” she admits. “Operating as I do in my own little bubble, I wasn’t aware that there was an Irish album prize, but to be told, ‘You’re one of the 10 best’ is a huge compliment.

"It’s definitely made a difference in terms of the number of journalists who want to talk to me and the radio stations who are playing tracks off the album.”

While O’Neill has no mad overriding desire to become famous, she does want to make a living from her music.

“That €10,000 cheque would come in very handy,” she says referring to our earlier assertion, “but really it’s about raising my profile so I can travel to wherever in the world there’s an audience for my music.

"To feel that my own country’s behind me and proud of me is a real confidence-booster in terms of trying to make things happen in other countries. It’s a great calling card to be able to say, ‘This is what they think of me at home…’”

The last word goes to Dave Reid who agrees with Billboard that: “Ireland definitely is punching above its weight musically.

"If you put the Choice shortlist up against the best 10 albums that came out of Britain or America last year, there’s no difference in terms of quality and variety. That’s something to be really proud of.”

The Meteor Choice Music Prize takes place in Vicar Street, Dublin on February 27


And So I Watch You From Afar - All Hail Bright Futures

Bell X1 - Chop Chop

Girls Names - The New Life

Kodaline - In A Perfect World

Little Green Cars - Absolute Zero

Mano Le Tough - Changing Days

My Bloody Valentine - m b v

O Emperor - Vitreous

Lisa O'Neill - Same Cloth Or Not

Villagers - {Awayland}