Judging Music

Popularity does not always mean talent

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Listening to music through headphones

Brett Higgs

The recent success of popular band Nickelback at the Junos has left many questioning what “good” music really is, and who has the right to judge it.

“One person’s Mozart is another person’s Dittersdorf and there is no accounting for why one would prefer one over the other,” says Western music history professor James Grier.

This weekend London will be hosting its own Jack Richardson Music Awards. Darin Addison, publicist for the awards show, said a number of qualifications " both subjective and objective " help judges decide on the award recipients.

“It can be how much a band is playing around town, the quality of its album and the production ... and then there are also the emotional and tangible qualities.”

Curator for the London Ontario Live Arts festival, Ian Doig-Phaneuf, helps select which bands will perform at the annual festival. When deciding which acts to feature, he bases his judgment on a range of characteristics including context, scope, relativism and palatability.

“I do my best to showcase acts which lend themselves to a variety of experiences and emotions through their respective sounds " whether cerebral, nostalgic or simply beautiful,” he said.

While it is important for shows such as LOLA and JRMA to consider their audience when judging artists, Addison noted that a lack of public recognition does not necessarily mean the art is bad.

He pointed to The Stills, a Quebec band that has been together since 2000, which recently won the award for Best New Group at the Junos.

“It’s not a matter of being bad art and good art; people just weren’t introduced to the band until a few years ago,” Addison said.

For 94.9 CHRW music and promotions director Alicks Girowski, innovation is an important part of measuring the quality of art.

She says music can be popular, without necessarily being good.

“If you’re hiring a manager, a publicist, a booking agent and a tour manager, at that point you’re just trying to promote [your art] and spew it out in the marketing machine ... you’re being judged on what people are saying about you and talking about, not your own art.”

According to Girowski, a true artist is driven because they love art, not because they want to make a profit or please their audience.

“I feel like all the people who are creating music for themselves and their close friends " that is the music that has true meaning, instead of bands who are just creating for fame and for the profits,” she said.

However, Paterson Hodgson pointed out the popularity of a piece of art must reflect its worth, at least to a small degree.

“I think if someone likes it, music must be at least a little bit good. Maybe if only one person likes it, then they’re a bit off.”

Hodgson directs booking and promotions for London’s Open House Arts Collective. She thinks art preferences change with each generation.

“Maybe nothing is good or bad,” she pointed out. “Maybe things just become more socially acceptable and thus become good.”

Patrick Mahon, chair of Western’s visual arts department, agreed methods of judging art have changed over the years.

“When we departed from aesthetics as a major determinant of good or bad quality, and when we brought in critical aspects, that really shifted the field,” he said.

He believes art can be objectively judged, but only to a certain point.

“If one was thinking about art as kind of a formal object, then you could certainly make a judgment to whether it uses the formal aspects of art successfully, for example: does it have good composition? Is the colour palate successful?”

“It’s hard to say good or bad,” Hodgson noted. “You can break it down to the basics where it’s all about skill … but once you get beyond that it’s a swamp and you’ve got no goggles or flippers and you’re just drowning.

“You can’t talk to anyone about music in any objective way once you get past its basic building blocks.”

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