Scottish Album of the Year Award: Having our SAY

Calvin Harris - 18 Months: One of the Scottish Album of the Year contenders
Calvin Harris - 18 Months: One of the Scottish Album of the Year contenders
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THERE was a moment at the 1999 Brit Awards that has become somewhat legendary in Scottish indie music circles.

Zoë Ball and Fun Lovin’ Criminal Huey Morgan take the stage to present the Best Newcomer award, as voted for by Radio One listeners. Among the nominations are Steps, a youthful Billie Piper, and boy bands 5ive and Another Level.

The winners, though, are a band most people in the audience have never heard of: Belle and Sebastian. Two awkward young men shuffle hesitantly on to the stage, looking so unlike pop stars that their presence momentarily punctures the atmosphere of the event. “I don’t know if this was meant to happen or not,” says drummer Richard Colburn, perplexed and amused in equal measure, as trumpeter Mick Cooke stands mute – and, by the looks of him, a bit panic-stricken – at his side. “Pretty bizarre anyway.”

I was reminded of this scene last week when watching footage of the inaugural Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award in 2012. The footage is, in many ways, Belle and Sebastian at the Brits writ large, except that this time the shy, modest indie musicians fit right in. Pop star posturing and glamour are conspicuous by their absence at the ceremony at Glasgow Film City. Instead, the likes of Conquering Animal Sound, Remember Remember and King Creosote make self-effacing wisecracks, and list friends they think should win instead of them and who they’re looking forward to sharing a drink with on the night.

“In the run-up to this I’ve been having weird competitive thoughts, and I’ve not liked that about myself,” Graeme Ronald of Remember Remember tells the camera. “Music is a hard thing to be competitive in,” observes Kenny Anderson, aka King Creosote. “In Scotland there’s a real pack mentality. It’s kind of weird to pitch us against each other.” Aidan Moffat hopes Mogwai win so they’ll owe him a pint.

It’s a cliché to talk about a lack of ego among Scottish musicians, but there’s a lot of truth to it. The pack mentality Anderson was referring to was evident last year in a shortlist that featured several collaborations: Steve Mason and Dennis Bovell, eventual winners Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells, and Anderson’s own partnership with Jon Hopkins.

Another shortlisted act, Happy Particles, was a recent gathering of members of several other Glasgow bands, including fellow nominees Remember Remember. Among the longlist for the 2013 award, announced on Thursday, is Thirteen Lost & Found, a beautiful album by RM Hubbert on which the guitarist worked with lots of old friends from Glasgow’s indie music scene, including Emma Pollock, Aidan Moffat and Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand, who Hubbert knew from his early days putting on gigs at the 13th Note.

The SAY Award has a slightly higher profile this year and, fittingly, the longlist also has some bigger names. Most obviously, Emeli Sandé and Calvin Harris bring pop star glamour to proceedings, while the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan adds elder statesman gravitas and the presence of Django Django should help attract the attention of London hipsters.

But since the winner is decided by a judging panel rather than the public, it’s equally possible that the person who takes the top prize will be a relative unknown – such as Justin Corrie, aka Miaoux Miaoux, whose electropop debut Light Of The North is as good as the debut albums by the sonically similar Postal Service and Hot Chip, but had nothing like the same exposure.

In this deliberate placing of the famous alongside the obscure, the prize the SAY Award most obviously resembles is the Mercury. In fact, the SAY Award pretty much replicates that format: it also gives £20,000 to its winner, and has a similar length of shortlist and an equally eclectic attitude, pitting hip-hop against guitar rock, folk, electronica and jazz.

Oddly, though, while the Mercury Prize has often felt tokenistic in some of its choices – it has become a running joke over the years that there’s always a jazz and a folk album, neither of which ever win – the SAY Award longlist feels like a remarkably accurate and inclusive summary of the best music currently being made in Scotland.

As with any award, some people will grumble about omissions. Deacon Blue’s much-praised comeback, The Hipsters, is conspicuously absent from this year’s longlist, as is Under Mountains by Rachel Sermanni, a regrettable snub given her presence at the awards show last year. On the whole, though, the longlist seems to be generating remarkably few complaints.

The SAY Award is a welcome addition to the awards calendar for all sorts of reasons. Most obviously, it shines a spotlight on bands who are unlikely to make it on to a Mercury or Brit Awards shortlist, or on to daytime Radio One, simply because the labels releasing their music lack the necessary resources.

An obvious example is Meursault, who are now building an audience internationally but whose three albums to date have all been released on a tiny record label, Edinburgh’s Song, by Toad, run by blogger turned podcaster, promoter and pundit Matthew Young. For a mostly one-man operation, Song, by Toad has built up an impressive profile in recent years, but it’s still very much a DIY enterprise. That the SAY Award recognises releases on a label such as this says a lot about its democratic, inclusive approach. It was equally telling that last year it shortlisted Happy Particles, who had quietly released their debut album themselves via Bandcamp on, of all days, Christmas Day.

It also feels like an award whose time has come. Scotland has its own film and TV awards (the Scottish Baftas), its own theatre awards (the Cats), plus awards for literature and traditional music. Arguably we should have our own contemporary art prize too. In fact, the only argument against this is surely that we’re already doing so well out of the Turner Prize, with yet another Scot on the four-strong shortlist this year. Last year’s Creative Scotland Awards, which seemed far more interested in people’s Scottishness than their actual talent, are probably best consigned to history, but a less crassly patriotic version could conceivably work.

If Scotland becomes independent next year, of course, the SAY Award potentially takes on a whole new significance. But that’s a discussion for later. In the meantime, have a listen to the nominees, if you haven’t already. They deserve your attention. «

Twitter: @aeatonlewis

• The shortlist for the 2013 SAY Award is announced on 30 May, following a 24-hour public vote on 27 May. The winner will be announced at Glasgow Barrowland on 20 June. www.sayaward.com