In classical music, they fight with the gloves off. If you haven’t won a competition, you won’t find an audience. Pop works differently. Here the music industry, journalists and committees step in as control mechanisms and generate awards. An overview.
Music awards are almost as old as the music industry, even if they say little about the art itself. Chart position and sales statistics are at least indicators of market value and provide short-term exchange rates for music. In the long-run, however, they say very little about the value of a song. Every year buried treasure is again excavated, and no laboratory in the world has yet been able to break the DNA of a successful pop song. So this, for all the calculation, makes it exciting to consider the how and the why of music awards.
The mother of all awards
The mother of all music awards is the Golden Record. The first official Golden Disc went to Gene Autry in 1931 for 500,000 sales of the single That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine. It was to be another eleven years before Glenn Miller enjoyed the same honour for his Chattanooga Choo Choo. The Golden record has been officially and regularly awarded in the United States since 1958, and the practice was soon adopted in Germany. The criteria for receiving it have been steadily watered down in the face of declining sales figures and galloping market complexity. Today almost no one is any longer interested in these old-fashioned rituals. Accompanied by more or less hoo-ha, other music prizes have taken the place of the Golden Record.
For example, since 1992 the German Phono Academy has been awarding the Echo, which is regarded as the hottest and most coveted prize in the German pop scene. The award winners emerge from adding together the weekly results of the Media Control Charts, that is, the verdict is more about quick turnover than long-term sales. Thus it is not surprising that Helene Fischer, who possesses sixteen of the trophies, has received by far the most Echoes, followed by the Kastelruther Spatzen (13), Herbert Grönemeyer (11), Die Toten Hosen and Rammstein (each 10). Creativity or artistic value are irrelevant; all that counts is the commercial standing. The prize therefore also came under fire in 2013 when the South Tyrolean bandFrei.Wild, regarded as belonging to the right-wing scene, was nominated for an Echo. Numerous artists, including Die Ärzte and Kraftklub, stayed away from the awards ceremony in protest. A small sign at least that content is still taken notice of.
Commerce vs. criticism
The quality-oriented counterpart of the Echo is the German Record Critics’ Prize, whose eponymous association confers the award on the basis of critics’ votes. Commercial aspects are taken into account only insofar as labels that are well-positioned on the market naturally have the means of drawing the attention of critics to their products. In order to highlight different emphases, quarterly highscore lists and annual prizes are awarded. Another award is the GEMA Music Author Prize, whose award ceremonies have been celebrated with a big gala event in Berlin since 2009. As with the German Record Critics’ Prize, its winner is decided by a jury of experts.
There is also an award that seeks to be an independent counterweight to the Echo. In September 2016 the Award for Pop Culture was presented for the first time, launched by the eponymous Association for Pop Culture and awarded by a mixed jury recruited from the ranks of association members representing industry, journalism and organizers. It is “a small but fine display window for pop music”, summed up Spiegel Online following the award ceremony in Berlin; after all, it considers worthy of accolade artists such as the rapper K.I.Z. and bands such as Moderat and Deichkind, who are clearly different from those chosen by the sales-oriented business competition of the Echo. A signal from the music scene with development potential.
The "favorite band" of the Award for Pop Culture 2016: Moderat, source: YouTube
The series of music awards for pop music and other categories that is published at the website of the German Music Council is as long as it is incomplete and sometimes obscure. The sponsors are composed of a mixture of public and private media, associations and interest groups, educational institutions and artists’ panels, political bodies and foundations. The awards are correspondingly broadly diversified. The smaller and more regional the award-giving organizations, the less the awards are looked upon as distinctions for achievement or recognition for sales. Advancement awards range from those for the promotion of venues through scholarships (for example, trips abroad) to studio prizes for purposes of recording a CD.
A popular means of promotion are competitions, the winning of which is tantamount to receiving a prize. They are open to newcomers and make possible above all targeted support at the regional level and the jump from amateur to professional status. Audience awards are mainly determined by means of reader or listener surveys. One of the most prestigious audience awards in Germany is that of 1Live-Krone of the West German Broadcasting Corporation. Another possibility for funding in the broadest sense are casting shows such as Deutschland sucht den Superstar (Germany Looks for a Superstar, comparable to the international casting show Popstars), though these are least of all about actual quality or market potential.
Music prizes serve very different purposes. In many cases, they are a suitable means of advertising for the sponsor to draw attention to himself. Their effectiveness for the artist, however, is not measurable. It is hardly likely that a well-known pop musician will become even more successful because he can take a new trophy home, and the only people who are interested in the website and Wikipedia lists of Echo winners are statisticians. Advancement awards may be a springboard or means of financial support, but their far-reaching effects on the careers of musicians are not demonstrable. Perhaps it is symptomatic that, since ABBA in 1974 and, on a smaller scale, Nicole in 1982, no other winners of the Eurovision Song Contest have been able to build a career on gaining the coveted prize. Nevertheless, music awards are in vogue. They attract attention in an increasingly complex and diverse cultural world that can focus on a subject only for a short time. They are thus an important tool of promotion and may well gain in importance, even if their effect is not precisely measurable.