Pyrrhic victories at the music awards

The music awards season is here and while on the surface the ceremonies are given much fanfare, under the surface in musicians’ circles there is undoubtedly a strain of discontent.

Daniel Cassar and Nick Morales of No Snow/No Alps.
Daniel Cassar and Nick Morales of No Snow/No Alps.

For starters, I should lay out my cards to be fully understood from which perspective I am writing - I am a member of three bands - nosnow/noalps, Dripht and Bark Bark Disco, and the former two bands have performed and have been nominated and awarded at both the Bay Music Awards (to be held tomorrow, 12 December) and the Malta Music Awards (held on 26 November).

As Teodor Reljic's article 'Bay Radio bars performers from playing during rival ceremonies' correctly reports (the title alone says it all), this year's major issue stems from the fact that Bay Radio has requested an exclusivity agreement from nominees with regards to performing at the Bay Music Awards.

It should be noted that, to critics, something is always wrong with both the Malta Music Awards and the Bay Music Awards - it's the playback performances, it's the fact that nominations are never fully capable of recognising the bustling underground music scene; at other times it's the fact that the usual suspects always sweep away awards. The list is endless, detractors will always find an excuse to swipe at both awards ceremonies - they are easy targets.

On the other hand, for the nominated artists it's a different story. This year in particular has seen some of the best music released by local artists, an unprecedented number of well written and produced albums, local music videos are now easily on par in terms of quality with most independently released videos abroad (yes, the cliché benchmark) and a number of interesting new younger bands have cropped up, giving us some insight on where the scenes are heading.

This clearly means that recognition should be duly given, and awards ceremonies are just that, an end of year celebration of the growth of local music. The most to benefit, at least in my experience are the newer, younger bands - the stage, the audience and maybe an award might just get them an invite to play the following year's bigger events - invites that are rarely offered if they just stick to playing underground gigs. The more seasoned bands also stand to gain, the awards ceremonies actually shed light on the entire recorded repertoire, not just singles.

The main issue at hand, namely the BMAs' exclusivity agreement, has to be seen in context of what the Bay Music Awards is - unlike the Malta Music Awards, the ceremony revolves around Bay Radio and its broadcasting year.

It's rather insular, however, it never actually pretended to be otherwise. In fact, all nominees usually would have charted well throughout the year, and the SMS voting system represents the model that Bay Radio operates throughout the year, i.e. involving its listeners to participate. It stands to reason therefore that they can set the rules. Bay Radio, with the artists' consent, can and should be able to play whom they want, how they want, when they want - it's related to the freedom of speech that artists should enjoy. It also stands to reason that if they decide to nominate anyone, they can do it at their own terms too, in this case, if one does not perform, one does not get nominated, and hence, one gets less to no airplay in the run up and aftermath of the ceremony (covering a two to three month span).

All was well and good in the past few years, but with dwindling audiences and the novelty of both ceremonies wearing off, having two events just 10 days apart is not exactly practical for both. That is where the exclusivity request came in to play, and whereas the 'less airplay' clause sounds rather threatening to an artist, especially given Bay Radio's favourable market share, one could easily expect it.

In defence of Bay, at least through personal experience, they have been rather supportive in the past - back when Dripht were playing at small punk shows, they plugged in our first single 'Mark Barnsley' without hesitation, and as a consequence we were invited to play several better paying events. Ironically, it was a rival radio station that was affiliated with the MMAs a few years back that demanded airplay exclusivity with 'Mark Barnsley' and actually delivered on their threat by refusing our later singles.

So what does this all mean to the artist? In the past, radio and television have been very important platforms, however, nowadays, it's much easier for an artist to go it alone. A viral video for Bark Bark Disco has been viewed over 400,000 times and the band performed live in Japan and all over Europe. Brikkuni and Xtruppaw sell out venues to audiences who know every word to every one of their songs. Beheaded and Forsaken are well known and revered internationally, the former were asked to play, and played, as far away as Thailand and the United States, while still packing venues locally. None of the above bands had any radio play, and only Beheaded and Forsaken participated in the awards shows, and even then, they were sidelined into a grossly generic 'Heavy Metal Award' category. The same easily applies to any other band, and, increasingly, every artist is coming to terms with the potential of self-promotion.

The Bay Music Awards have every right to ask for exclusivity, but they can do so only as far as the artists believe they are getting something out of it. So far it's been the case to an extent, but as time passes, this belief is being eroded. Both awards shows should keep on their toes and respect the artist, and keep a firm ear on the ground to understand their grievances, otherwise they will risk an eventual backlash. Local bands can exist and thrive without awards shows, as they have done for decades, while the awards shows cannot exist without the artists.

Through bickering between them on who gets the November/December spot, both awards shows are alienating the artists, their whole raison d'être. While to most musicians, awards and nominations are welcome, having to choose which football team to join, as Kevin De Cesare's crass and uninformed comment pointed out, defies the whole purpose of why most musicians decided to play music in the first place.

Daniel Cassar plays for No Snow/No Alps

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