Music Matters

ARIAs still matter to artists, but what do they say about us?

Best Classical Album winners Flight Facilities, playing at the ARIA award ceremony last year. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

High-profile awards ceremonies are often only as interesting as the controversies they create. The 2016 ARIA Awards has started strongly in this area. Although the main ceremony is still a month away, the Fine Arts and Artisan Awards awarded on October 5 raised eyebrows when the Best Classical Album award was given to electro-pop band Flight Facilities. The winning recording featured the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which was enough, in the eyes of the judges, to classify it as being “a publicly recognised classical style”.

The decision has drawn protests from classical labels and other artists in the category, whose recordings of Mozart and Bach seem more in line with what would be expected to win.

This comes a year after criticism of Indigenous singer Gurrumul’s win in the category of World Music. The label “World Music” itself has long been criticised for being a catch-all for the huge variety of un-Western, non-English music – that is, “ethnic” music, “other” music. The idea that an Indigenous Australian singing in the Yolgnu language would be classified in this way was seen as dismissive and another use of institutional power to marginalise Indigenous voices.

In light of these controversies, it’s worth having a look at the categories used in the ARIAs, and how artists are divided among them.

Why do artists get the nominations they do?

Australian singer Gurrumul arrives at the 25th Anniversary ARIA Awards in Sydney.

Artists and their labels choose which categories to submit their work to. At the end of the day, the consideration for artists can often be which category is most likely to deliver a win, regardless of how appropriate it is.

Gurrumul and his management recognised that it was unlikely he would win in more “mainstream” categories like Best Album, but also recognised the value of a win in any category. The World category was simply his best option, especially given the general marginalisation of Indigenous music in Australia.

The odd outcomes of these types of plays for a win can be seen across awards ceremonies – commentators on the Oscars refer to it as “category fraud”. The Emmys have recently reworked their rules after the drama Orange is the New Black was nominated in the comedy category.

That artists such as Flight Facilities aim for a win in a not-quite-right category tells us that these awards are seen as valuable (despite the criticism they are often subjected to). Getting a nomination anywhere can be a valuable piece of publicity, particularly for up-and-coming bands.

For example, psych-rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard were unlikely nominees in the Jazz category in 2015, but have scored nominations in five non-genre categories this year. However, that fact that artists like Gurrumul are highly unlikely to get a look-in in the more “mainstream” categories is a reflection of what Australia values both musically and socially.

The categories themselves tell us what is dominant in the Australian market. Pop and rock continue to be held up as the staples of musical production in this country. While there are genre categories, like Jazz, Country or indeed World, these are used to recognise different types of music while still preserving the attention-grabbing awards such as Best Album, which are usually the domain of predictable (and generally white) rock and pop outfits.

What is ‘Adult Contemporary’?

That some of these genre awards, including Jazz and World Music, are presented at a separate, much lower-profile event to the televised award show reinforces their marginal status. Some genre categories, such as “Adult Contemporary” and “Adult Alternative”, aren’t easily defined by a casual observer, and give rock and pop artists yet another possibility for a win.

Changes to these categories happen very slowly. The strong shift towards RnB and hip hop that is increasingly obvious in the USA – as evidenced by a recent MTV Music Video Awards ceremony that had no rock acts performing – is not at all apparent in Australian-grown music, if the ARIAs are any indication. The Urban award remains a catch-all category that includes RnB, hip hop, funk, reggae and soul. Despite the success of many Aussie hip hop outfits, they have made little inroads into the general categories at the ARIAs to date.

On the other hand, the Hard Rock/Heavy Metal category was only instituted in 2010, despite being one of the biggest selling genres worldwide, and the presence of a strong metal scene in Australia. A separate Indigenous category, which would have been an obvious home for an artist like Gurrumul, was abolished in 1998 (although such a category could also potentially be divisive in other ways).

If awards are still taken seriously then decisions about categories influence what type of music is seen as important. Changes to categories, and the lengths artists will go to have their music recognised, ultimately may be more about social attitudes than musical value.