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In tune. Informed. Indispensable.

As the BBC Sound of 2014 longlist is announced, David Balfour mulls the controversy and varied impacts around the award.

Since its inception in 2003, the BBC Sound Of poll has grown from being what initially felt like an informal aggregation of critics’ opinions to become something much more significant. 

As the Sound of Poll’s importance to the music industry - and the media which comments on the music industry - has grown, it has also started to become one of the hottest-debated industry topics of the year. As we know, when subjects get debated, especially on the internet, common sense and balance can be the first victims. 

We would find some of the reactions to the longlist amusing if they weren’t so unbalanced. For instance, when only one rock act was included this year, some immediately took this to be evidence that rock music is in poor health, or that predictions of its resurgence have been wrong. Similarly, when a number of male singer-songwriters appeared in the 2014 list, others quick to declare that 2014 will be ‘the year of the male singer-songwriter’.

These kind of knee-jerk reactions actually lend the poll an importance and credibility that give the list far too much importance. It’s as if to imply that the list overpowers the ability of journalists and radio programmers to have any opinions of their own about their music policy for 2014. As if to say “the ciritcs have fallen into line behind these choices, so now will every one else”.

All of this adds up to a suggestion that the poll is somehow a unified statement of intent, or as some kind of official manifesto from the music industry. In reality, it remains nothing more than an aggregation and distillation of critic and tastemaker opinions. 

So much hyperbole now exists around it however that it can also have some pretty toxic effects, not least for the artists it was intended to celebrate. Inclusion in the longlist should be something overwhelmingly positive, as it seems to be with the Mercury Prize. In the case of the Sound of Poll however, it can be a very mixed blessing.

If key upcoming acts are judged to be missing from the list, some will claim it is evidence that certain acts are not really as popular or worthy as they’re being hyped to be. Conversely, the inclusion of other acts will be met with suggestions that they’re only featured because of frenzied record label vote lobbying. Neither is good: if your exclusion can lead to former supporters backing away, or if it brings too much focus on the PR and label machine behind the act, no artist wins. We found it particularly distasteful this week reading lists of acts (such as Daisy Dares You, Little Boots, Mona, Niki & The Dove, FrankMusic, Friends, Joe Lean, Marcos Hernandez) who were deemed to have failed, because they hadn’t followed their inclusion with the ‘correct’ level of commercial success. It’s actually quite sinister, not least when the BBC itself makes no calls for commercial viability, telling the voting panel to nominate: ‘the best, most exciting acts, in your personal opinion. Please base your choices on quality, not on hype or size of record deal.’ 

Perhaps there are questions to be asked about the distilling process by which the BBC goes from a large number of critics’ votes to a final shortlist of 15. As with the Mercury prize, this is perhaps the least transparent part of the process and the place where corporate interests and other forms of bias stand the most chance to skewing the balance. It would also be true to say that previous year’s lists have been heavily influenced by major label priorities. Perhaps this is a poor reflection on the people who vote. Can they not go with their gut feeling and pick a more-or-less unknown act possessing of raw talent? It seems they would generally prefer a safer bet, even in the knowledge that their vote will never be made public. Perhaps every one would breathe a sigh of relief if this distillation process through which the longlist is produced was made more transparent. 

This year’s reaction has even seen a new trend where previous lack of inclusion has become a badge of honour. The fact that Bastille, Rudimental or Ed Sheeran never appeared in the list has been touted both as evidence of the poll’s overall failure and of those artists’ credibility. It’s all pretty stupid and depressing. However, we feel that all these aspects mentioned above do however point to some of inherent flaws with the poll. For one, predicting future success within a given timeframe is actually really unhelpful and intrinsically misaligned with an artistic process which should enjoy a much, much longer term outlook. For two, when success is not really defined but is at the same time benchmarked by major label priority acts, anything less than large scale success is likely to appear as failure. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the poll – or people’s view of it - now gives too much credibility to the opinions of critics who operate perhaps too close for comfort to the industry machine, even if they don’t realise it.

It should be noted that this week also saw the unveiling of the shortlist for the BRITs Critics’ Choice poll. This is another example of a forward-looking poll on which huge focus is placed, which relies wholly on the opinions of critics and which will appoint a winner who will inevitably either live up to, or fail to live up to the promise. At least the previous winners of that prize have all gone on to enjoy some significant success, though it’s fair to say that no winner to date has been a risky choice. We were a little more enthused by the announcement this week of Shazam’s New Artists to Watch list for 2014. This poll balances the opinion of critics with that of real activity from real music fans. Similarly, the UK Blog Sound of 2014 poll – also announced this week - also feels a little more beneficial in its potential impact on artists.

Ultimately any poll which is no longer benefiting the artists involved should be questioned. It feels like we’re dangerously close to that point with BBC Sound Of, as each year passes, there seems to be less to celebrate here. We can only hope that some of the artists in this year’s longlist will enjoy a positive halo effect of interest and sales – which is certainly what the BBC intended when it first launched this initiative.

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