How many awards does one city need? It’s a question we often ask at SevenStreets (usually when we’re bypassed at yet another envelope opening). We’re all for celebrating great stuff, and ticking off the lacklustre. But award ceremonies? What’s the real story here?
Today, the judging panel for the Liverpool Music Awards is announced. Which means that, soon, we’re gonna need an Award for the Best Liverpool Music Awards Award.
In their press release, the Awards make no mention of the GIT awards; the other Liverpool Music Awards that launched, successfully, earlier this year, with front page BBC Online coverage, and support from the NME. This isn’t about music, it’s a cover version. It’s the Mathew Street Festival of Music Awards.
“Think The Brits, think the MTV Awards and think Liverpool Music Awards” says organiser Ellie Phillips, launching her awards – with a panel of judges featuring the Echo’s Jade Wright, and BBC Radio Merseyside’s Dave Monks and Billy Butler (and son).
Er, no. We think opportunity to cash in, chairs with blankets wrapped around them, corporate sponsors, £80 tickets, a night out for Ian McNabb, and crap goodie bags. We don’t think music at all, really. So, despite being hounded with requests to support it, we’re out.
Want further proof of these awards’ musical credentials? Each award has a sponsor (Ker-ching) – including those musical heavyweights Andrew Collinge, Hotel Indigo and Rare Women’s Fashion (er, us neither).
It’s a further expression of an uncomfortable fact: this city seems hung up on self-congratulatory slaps on the back, reassuring purring from our peers, and an interview on Liverpool LIVE. Whatever happened to doing you thing, doing it to the best of your ability, and moving forward?
As a result, our awards’ currency has become devalued. Look at the hoardings: every new development is ‘award winning’. Every style bar has a gilt-framed certificate. Every hairdresser a glass-blown trophy with a swirly bit in the middle.
Is it about recognising excellence? Not really. You can do that with honest editorial features, with good old fashioned custom, word of mouth, and industry-recognised accolades and achievements. Stuff you work for, not tell your mates to vote for. Put it this way – whose opinion means more to you: the Juice FM Style Awards, or recommendations from people you trust, with no ulterior motive or PR cash behind them?
No, awards in this city are all about the awarder, not the awardee. It’s a business. A corporate extension. A social media exercise, the chance to upsell your events company/lifestyle magazine/networking body and a sweetener for advertisers. And it’s a chance for liggers and hangers on to forge a career out of other peoples’ talent – a CV leg up. No more. No less. The city has enough phantom industries, we don’t need any more.
We spoke to Downtown Liverpool’s awards co-ordinator earlier in the year, after we took a look at their shortlist. How, we wonder, do they arrive at the list. And how are winners chosen? We expected the business enterprise body to have assembled an impressive line-up of entrepreneurs and business angels: a weighty panel of peers.
“People vote for their favourites online,” he told us.
Ah, so it’s not really an award, it’s a popularity contest? Are there any checks in place to prevent block voting, or other dastardly deeds?
“No, we expect our website visitors to be honest and impartial.”
That may well be the case. But what does that tell us about Downtown Liverpool? That it’s all about the networking, sadly. Sexy or otherwise. When, ironically, it should be about finding and hot-housing the kitchen-table enterprise, the genuinely exciting new initiative or the communities who are trying to get back on their feet. But, then, how sexy is social enterprise?
Of course, get it right, and the award can really catapult you into the major league – look at perennial underdogs elbow, and Oxton village’s Fraiche: a Michelin starred snub to Liverpool and Manchester’s celebrity chef outposts. But to have any clout, we have to believe the awards are delivered on merit, not quantitative easing. And that, in as small a pool as Liver, it’s not just a big shuffle round of nominations (‘oh, Delifonseca won it last year, better leave them for a while.’).
Awards are, like Charles Ives famously said, ‘Merely badges of mediocrity’, a safe handshake, an ‘are we ok to count on your support next year, now we’ve given you a gong?, they’re based on what is known, what is liked, and what is now.
They’re not, and never can be, about what is truly new, truly oulying or truly original. They are, if you like, awards for stuff that was interesting five years ago. Awarding music for its originality when you’re immersed in a soundtrack that, obviously, is having a conversation with the stuff that surrounds us is a metaphysical constraint even Dr Dre’s Beats can’t overcome. We have two words: Ed Sheeran. Enough said.
Oh, but let’s not forget M People winning the Mercury prize, eh? The world is full of experts forcing us to toe the line. Turn on the TV – you’ll see a hoard of hectoring know-alls telling us that their taste (in restaurants, home improvements, diets, music, whatever) is better, more important, more knowledgable, than yours. Don’t believe it. Follow your heart, people. Not a panel of experts.
But it’s not just the sponsors who make the cash – and the awards – go round. A friend of ours is regularly badgered every year by another awards organisation’s events team. She works for a leading salon. They’re desperate for her to sponsor an award. Or, failing that, buy a corporate table for a grand. She’s been told, in not so unsubtle terms, that sponsors are highly rewarded down the line. She told them where to go – and has yet to be nominated.
Meanwhile, Liverpool Style Awards’ search for Liverpool’s Best Home Improvement Company continues – set up by Downtown Liverpool’s ‘Lifestyle’ Business Award winner (can you see a theme developing here?), Amanda Moss. More on her values here.
At last year’s Food and Drink awards bash the winners were voted for by punters clocking in to the website. We’re not arguing with the results – we’re delighted for each and every winner (especially Bold Street Coffee). But we also know that website democracy is a dodgy thing. And that those ventures with a PR and advertising budget can afford the extra exposure/vote filling resource. Smaller venues, more often than not, just don’t play that game, and the best ones? They don’t have to (so no gong for Fraiche, or Da Piero). And the reason why Cafe Porto will always come second to Viva Brazil – despite the real passion being, always, at the former.
Maybe these awards are harmless enough – a glittery night of airkisses and goodie bags. But my fear is this need for constant vindication, for public approval and diary-page photospreads, really doesn’t advance the argument, celebrate the innovative, or take the city forward. The events (bar a few notable exceptions – including the genuinely valuable Liverpool Art Prize, the inspirational Merseyside Women of the Year awards and Liverpool Unites) are little more than a feedback loop of backslappers – and, sadly, for that reason, we’re out. And always will be.