Andy Coules on why awards shows are ‘fundamentally flawed’

Now that awards season is over for another year, Andy Coules asks whether a new system of recognition is required.

After watching the Oscars it occurred to me – not for the first time – that awards ceremonies are fundamentally flawed. 

How can you objectively compare films in different genres or performances in different roles? How, for instance, can you compare a civil rights drama to a black comedy? A biopic of a brilliant scientist to a quirky comedy? A biopic of another brilliant scientist to a gritty war drama? The truth is that you can’t, it’s like comparing a potato to an apple – both provide similar sustenance but appeal to very different needs.

But we are clearly fascinated by awards – they trigger intense bouts of speculation and discussion as to the relative merits of a particular work of art or performance above another. Once they’re over, and the winners have been declared, there is equally intense debate about the choices made. It’s interesting to note that very few awards are decided by any kind of popular vote; most are awarded by the industry, which produces the nominees in a kind of self-aggrandising feedback loop. The Oscars, for instance, are decided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is made up of motion picture professionals – most of whom are actors (which explains why ‘actorly’ films always tend to do well).

But this is not unique to the world of film – the music industry suffers from a similarly flawed desire to exalt one creation above all others, but how can we truly compare music of different genres or performances in different bands? Is a heart felt singer-songwriter truly better than a two-piece muscular rock band? Is a soul pop artist more meaningful than a quirky crossover indie act? We all have opinions on which albums or bands are the best but such views are fundamentally subjective and can be subject to change as a result of shifting context or perception. Any attempt to isolate one as being superior to all others is more likely to lead to cognitive dissonance than any kind of pleasing resolution.

Thus awards are invariably invidious, leading to outbursts or comments from certain participants who are unhappy with the outcome. Kanye West’s comments about Beck “lacking artistry” after this year’s Grammys belied an inability by him to comprehend any other winner than Beyoncé. After the 2014 Brit Awards Jake Bugg expressed incredulity that he, with just two albums under his belt, could be nominated in the same category as David Bowie, an artist with a rich and varied musical history going back over 50 years.

And then there are categories, which appear to be more about peer perception than any kind of objective observation – such as best live act. I find it hard to believe that all the judges manage to attend shows by all the nominees, so what are they basing their judgement on? Invariably it’s the bands who have a reputation for being good live acts that win but which came first, the nomination or the reputation?

But what is the purpose of awards ceremonies? Are they just an excuse to get together and have a big party? Are they part of a strategy to boost sales? Or are they a genuine attempt to praise excellence? While I’m sure we’d all like to believe they’re about praising excellence the truth is that they are much more about gathering attention from the wider world and boosting sales. Morrissey hit the nail on the head when he called the Brit Awards “…the junk propaganda of the strongest labels gathering to share out awards for their own artists whom they plan to heavily promote”.

What I would like to see is an award that nominates without declaring a winner. Nominations could be arrived at using sales figures or a popular vote, the nominees could gather and perform as a collective celebration of excellence but at no point is a winner declared because nomination in and of itself should be honour enough (not to mention a healthy boost in sales for all involved).

Or maybe I’m missing the point entirely, it could be that all awards are meaningless – until you win one.

Andy Coules is a sound engineer and audio educator who has toured the world with a diverse array of acts in a wide range of genres.

Picture: 2015 Oscar-winning sound editorAlan Robert Murray and Bub Asman. Credit: ABC/Craig Sjodin