IN a digital age of content overload - with a thousand ways to take it, and an infinite number of ways to make it - how do we even make a start on finding the band, the book, the film, the artist we truly love?
The final stages of the SAY Awards - standing for Scottish Album of the Year, and in their fourth year - are upon us, with the usual highly contentious shortlist just decided by a team of judges. They’re a good starting point to explore our opening question.
For one thing - facing the ocean wall of music advancing on all of us, from small rooms and ubiquitous devices - at least the SAYAwards try to use “Scottish” as some kind of filter or frame. Even that could cause a fight in an empty room. It’s worth quoting in full:
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“For the purposes of this award, albums will be deemed to have been recorded by a ‘Scottish Artist’ when: the artist was born in Scotland; at least 50% of the band’s core members were born in Scotland (session musicians will not be considered); an artist or band, irrespective of nationality, has made their creative base in Scotland for the past 3 years.”
Does any of this sound familiar to anoraks of both the fitba and constitutional persuasion? After the last few years, I’m sure it does. It’s also one of the most useful aspects of an awards process, in that it can ask us to relate our cultural whims and purchases to bigger themes, broader issues.
The Orwell Prize awards for “political writing of outstanding quality”, the Orange Prize to “female authors of any nationality”, The Royal Society Prize for science books of the year. The Turner Prize, coming to Glasgow next year, pushes conceptual art through the mainstream media channels for a precious few months.
Busy with family and work like everyone else, I can’t have enough of these awards. The shortlist is a crucial element of it all. What, you’re giving me a menu of 5 to 10 excellent consumer options, carved out of vast domains of content that I know I should be up to speed with, but am usually hugely daunted by? Well, thank you!
The shortlist for the SAY Awards is a perfect example of how it can work (and time for full disclosure in a small country: my brother Gregory is on the management board of the SMIA, who organises the whole process). With my 4G bandwidth handling it easily, I’ve wandered the streets of Glasgow in the last 48 hours, listening to a free track from each of the 10 finalists.
Of course I have my favourites, and my perplexities about who didn’t make it from the longlist. But if you listen without prejudice, you can just exult in the carefree invention (and often sheer idiosyncrasy) of these Scottish artists.
From Young Fathers’ wall of noise laced with sweet soul phrases, to the Amazing Snakeheads’ making me laugh delightedly at their “Sauchiehall Street, 3am” sense of drama; from Slam’s serialist dance grooves to Paulo Nutini’s Sly-Stone-era ambition (who won the popular vote option).
We often glibly invoke our “creative” Scotland - but here it is, and it’s only one sample from a buzzing, blooming mountain of artistic striving.
Are you infuriated by selections and absences? Then you’d go to see who the hell these judges are - that’s one way we assess an authoritative awards process. The SAY Awards passes my test for both expertise and eclecticism.
I might not agree with their decisions, but I’d trust a group that has both Bob Last (post-punk manager and indy-movie producer supreme) and Cora Bissett (playwright and songwriter) in its ranks.
So it’s humans of evident distinction, making selections from humans of manifest talent, offering it to humans who want to make the best choice, in the leisure time they have. Yes, I emphasize humans - not algorithms.
How many times have you been well-serviced by Amazon’s or Apple’s online suggestions, based on their massive data-crunching of yours and everyone else’s purchases? If you “liked” this, then did you “love” that?
I’m not entirely down on the recommendation engines. If I’ve been on a research theme or mild obsession, they do shuffle up to you with some reasonably interesting options, like slightly less creepy versions of the Fast Show’s “suits you, sir!” tailors.
We are becoming well aware of the implications of automation for many routine mental and manual jobs in the next few decades. But we’re also developing a sense of what can’t (or shouldn’t) be automated, at least not to our human satisfaction.
And among an increasingly interesting list of the non-automatable - those of us who are good at hands-on caring and empathising, for example, will happily defy the robots - one of the obvious examples is aesthetic sensibility, whether you’re an art-maker or art-receiver.
In the music business, we know what digitalisation, and the loosening of content from pricing, has meant for a while. Making beautiful unique objects to sell (whether musical or merchandise), or controlling the gate on a one-time only performance, are the only reliable ways of making any kind of buck.
Is this re-emphasis on a unique product, and on the singular nature of live performance, a good thing for the music industry? Undoubtedly, I’d say.
While we know this story, I think what’s also coming back is the return of the critical taste-call. Of course, Simon Cowell has built a global business empire on a garish, exploitative Saturday night version of this - where the car-crash spectacle is most of the point, the “judges” have near-to-zero credibility, and social media allows for every fragment of every viewer’s opinion to be vented.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. However about reviving the era of the great, daring, thesis-defending rock critics - Greil Marcus, Julie Burchill, Paul Morley - but amplified with blogs and available content? One of the SAY Awards judges, Sean Adams (founder of music site Drowned in Sound) hints at what’s possible. But I would point you to a brilliant young music critic called Adam Harper, whose blog Rouge’s Foam is a delirious mix of curated electronic music, and his startling theories and responses to it all.
To give the BBC its due, it’s picked up that there is a deeply committed audience who craves quality discussions about, and expert curations of, popular culture of all kinds (Friday night on BBC4!). And delightfully, they’ve often realised that the easiest solution is to get great artists themselves to make the selections.
I have pals who are literally devoted, even soul-saved, by Bob Dylan, Jarvis Cocker or Iggy Pop on digital radio - selecting records, and then talking as they wish between each record. Imagine that! Revolutionary!
This isn’t about the return of “gatekeepers” or “elites”. We’re in a much more democratised and mutually-engaged world in general these days, with all the communicative power we need in our pocket smartphones - and we’re all the better for it.
It’s more about realising that, if we can collectively and effectively harness the productive powers of our age, we can make more time in our lives for culture. And that enjoying, arguing about - or even better, maybe even contributing - to a list of this year’s best Scottish albums is exactly the kind of thing we should be making time for.
Pat Kane is a writer and musician (www.patkane.today)