Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Sticky questions about the Folk Awards

This week's BBC Folk Awards were the usual jolly, boozy affair (sadly FolkCast's invitation must have got lost in the post...), and musicians love them - at least, those who get nominated love them. 

Folk fans feel a bit patronised by them ("don't tell me who to like!"), and those musos who don't get nominated grumble about them begrudgingly, and probably make bad jokes about invitations being lost in the post...

Mike Harding - great!
But those who win an award really love them, because they can put that highly prized, lucrative phrase "BBC Award Winning Musician" on their gig posters, next to the quote from Mike Harding proclaiming them to be the best in the world and his favouritest ever, ever, ever.

Treating any part of the Arts like a sport, packaging it up into a competition and then picking a winner by secret and mysterious processes is utterly artificial, whether it's on The Oscars, The X Factor or The Folk Awards, and only really any good when the little guy beats the bookies' big name favourite, but it's true that the publicity generated by the Folk Awards helps make non-folkies briefly more aware of folk music ... which might even be a good thing.

Yet there are grumblings about the BBC Folk Awards beyond the usual complaints from the non-nominated. For instance:
  • Who judges these awards and how? ("They are top men" Who? "Top. Men.")
  • Why is time that could be filled with music given over to long speeches - and not even speeches from the winners?
  • Why does BBC Radio 2 give out awards for cutting edge folk music when for the rest of the year, apart from one hour a week on a Wednesday evening, Radio 2's idea of cutting edge folk music is Fiddler's Dram or The Wurzels?
  • What happened to the Folk Club Award? There's absolutely no recognition of the non-musicians who make the folk scene in Britain function by running clubs and festivals, organising workshops or making instruments.
  • Donovan? Seriously?
All hail The Stickies!
Then there are other questions being asked. Some critics have declared that the whole event is out-dated, cliquish and run by folkie fuddie-duddies, probably with beards, tankards and knitwear, who won't give new bands all the gongs. 

Actually, the Folk Awards doesn't give gongs, it gives ugly metal stickmen. As the awards desperately needs a good nickname I'll call them The Stickies until one comes along...

Adam Sherwin, a reporter from online entertainments publication Beehive City, is one such critic, saying that the bands Mumford & Sons and Noah & The Whale should be given Stickies, and claiming that the reason that they don't get them is down to "traditionalists" who prefer such staid old antiques as, er, Bellowhead or The Imagined Village...

Sadly, to fully argue against that, one has to dip into the age-old "what is folk?" discussion, and that way lies madness, so I'll resist.

(At this point I also have to warn that anyone trotting out the hackneyed Louis Armstrong quote featuring horses will be made to explain exactly why they think that rap, krunk, soul, bubblegum, opera, death metal and grindcore should all be filed in one big category marked "Folk Music", and why that would be remotely useful to anyone. Satchmo was joking, you know, and while his sentiment was both cute and literally correct it's also as much use in the real world as a timber merchant declaring that "all wood is trees" and refusing to arrange his warehouse by species.)

However, the reason that the Mumfords, Noah etc haven't been nominated is not that they've simply been ignored. It's not even that they aren't folk, beyond a simplistic definition dreamed up by a journalist looking for an angle. No, the real reason is that there is a great deal of far more interesting music out there, and even that doesn't all get a look in.

Adam also declares that the awards will have to expand to take in country music and world music, because the Beeb has scrapped the World Music awards, and should bring in more foreign musicians. Oh yeah? The Stickies recognise a section of uniquely British music that's massively under-represented on mainstream radio and television in England and Wales (the Scots get lots of great folk on their "local" BBC stations). Yes, British folk is part of an international family, and that's acknowledged and celebrated, but these are Britain's folk awards; other countries and other genres have their own.

The Mumfords etc can and do help bring new ears to folk music, and anyone who comes to listen will find a wide variety of sounds ranging from traditional shanties to electronica. Folk is no longer a narrow path, it has many turnings, but it's not boundless and if the BBC is to start sharing out the Stickies among comparatively conventional pop or rock bands just because those bands occasionally play a mandolin then the Stickies will lose what meaning and impact they do have.

Another charge is that too many of the awards go to the same group of people: "Each year these awards are shared out between a collective of musicians and sometimes even family members. There’s the Martin Carthy/Norma Waterson dynasty, the Bellowhead/Imagined Village troupes and various members of Fairport Convention", writes Adam at Beehive City.

He has a point. The same names do crop up with dull regularity, and of course those whom he describes as "old stagers" shouldn't automatically get nominated or win year after year. However, while Martin Carthy's wife and daughter won two categories, he himself has been oddly ignored for the Lifetime Achievement award even though he's achieved more than most actual recipients could dream of.

So should that be an excuse to bring in chart-bothering bands and famous international names, to shake it up a bit and generate more publicity? Hardly. There's enough genuine  folk talent in this country to choose from without turning to popstars and megastars. Where would it stop? The Pet Shop Boys for Best Duo? Lady Gaga for Musician of the Year? Justin Beiber for Lifetime Achievement? The ghosts of Shergar and Louis Armstrong doing a shock guest appearance to duet on a version of The Angels Took My Racehorse Away?

The BBC Folk Awards are not the only folk awards in Britain but they do get noticed in the wider world and provide a focus for the year for everyone involved in folk - performers and audiences, promoters, media and organisers. If others get into folk music by seeing and hearing the ceremony, great ... but that's not really what it's about. The Stickies should be a celebration of all facets of British folk, not simply an advert for the download of the compilation album.

The Stickies already recognise and promote young musicians through the Horizon Award and the Young Folk Award. If the BBC can extend that spirit to include those of all ages who toil away year after year without the profile generated by a major label release or an appearance at Cambridge Folk Festival, they'd be right on target.

And when Mumford or Noah - or anyone else - makes music that contributes to folk rather than simply trading on its echo then they should be on the nominations list faster than the perma-shaved Frank Skinner can do that old joke about the folk band who had beards, moustaches and big sideburns ... and that was just the women!

Funtime Frankie sings When I'm Cleaning Whiskers...


Anonymous said...

Absolutely agree. The nominations seem very odd - same old same old, plus a smattering of the Laus and Jim Morays occasionally to prove they're still in touch (?). As for combining (losing?) the Young Folk Awards in the general melee ...
And of course - DONOVAN?????????
Folk is such a precious and under-supported (by the general media)genre, it needs better care than this. The BBC SHOULD be the people to do this. It seems not.

Anonymous said...

It is not just on their "local" BBC stations that the Scots and Irish get recognised - the "Transatlantic Sessions" which are basically Scots and Irish musicians plus the occassional guest from the Americas are often shown on BBC4. Looking for English folk requires a strong magnifying glass! - although the recent pair of programmes on folk dance were good if under promoted.