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And the winner is: How voting works for East Coast Music Awards

Have you ever wondered how the winners are decided for the East Coast Music Awards? 

Every year Atlantic Canadians can vote for their choices for best video and entertainer of the year. But the remaining two dozen awards, and even the short list of nominees, is decided by 225 industry professionals from the Atlantic provinces, as well as national and international conference delegates. 

“We went to a completely juried process about four years ago,” said Dean Stairs, chair of the board of directors for the East Coast Music Association. He’s a Newfoundland-based music producer and venue owner.

For the 25 years before that, ECMA members, including musicians, could all vote for their favourites — but that was a problem, Stairs said. 

Our goal is to make it a 100 per cent level playing field.— Dean Stairs 

“In my opinion, it’s a much more fair process than where it went to a membership vote,” he said. “If you’d come from a region with a small population, you might be putting out great material and doing great things within your region, but generally because you’re not well known, you wouldn’t get your vote.” 

‘Even the nomination is something that carries significant weight,’ says Dean Stairs, chair of the ECMA board of directors. (ECMA.com)

The juried process better reflects the quality of musicians’ work rather than their regional popularity, Stairs said. 

“When it was a membership vote, it could be argued that it came down to how good of a marketing budget you had — if you could get your name out there, then you were probably going to have a good result,” Stairs said. 

Who are the jurors?

The ECMA has a pool of about 400 volunteers from which to choose its 225 jurors annually. It adds and subtracts about 50 new people a year, Stairs said.

The volunteer board looks for new members and the ECMA culls through jurors from the Juno Awards and FACTOR — the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings.

They also ask international delegates who attend the awards and conference, and people can apply to be jurors.

Ria Mae smiles after winning solo recording of the year award at last year’s ECMA gala. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

“They’re all people who work in the industry, people who have an understanding of the particular genre they’ll be judging,” Stairs said. “It’s a fairly robust community, at this point.” 

ECMA has conflict-of-interest guidelines and jurors are expected to opt out if they have close relationships with the musicians they’ve been asked to judge, although affiliations are not closely scrutinized, Stairs said. 

How do they judge?

Musicians apply to the awards in September and in October jurors receive a secure link online to listen to the nominees — usually about three songs. It’s all done privately and anonymously, so there’s no opportunity for judges to influence one another, Stairs said.

Even the nomination is something that carries significant weight.— Dean Stairs

None of the judges knows how the others in that category voted, so they don’t know the winners before the envelopes are opened. 

ECMA aims to have one juror for each category from each of the five regions — New Brunswick, P.E.I., Newfoundland and Labrador, Cape Breton and Nova Scotia, as well as an additional juror from outside the Atlantic.  

Jurors are asked to score entries like this: 20 per cent for artistic merit or presentation; 20 per cent on production and engineering; 15 per cent music and lyrics; 20 per cent for originality; and 20 per cent for accomplishments, marketing and promotion — this includes other awards artists may have won or press generated.

Jenn Grant has six nominations for East Coast Music Awards in 2018. (Submitted by ECMA)

For the remaining five per cent, jurors can use their instinct about the submission as a whole. Some categories also have additional criteria.

ECMA lays out its nomination process online. Artists pay to submit their albums for nomination, about $45 each, and that money goes back to the non-profit ECMA to pay for things like salaries and showcases. 

Showcases are also awarded to artists by jurors who consider “current industry trends and growth,” as well as experience, Stairs said. Artists then have a chance to perform for delegates at ECMA, like booking agents and festival co-ordinators, and get paid a standard rate. 

What the change has meant

“You used to see that award winners, and even nominees, one artist would run away with everything in one year,” Stairs said.

Now, the number of awards is more balanced, he believes. 

“A good year for somebody is to get three awards — it used to be a good year was seven or eight,” Stairs said.

Nominations are also better spread around the region, he believes, although he notes that information is anecdotal. 

Being nominated for or winning an ECMA ‘continues to hold value and it continues to be a career-enhancing step,’ says Stairs. N.S. duo The Town Heroes won three awards in 2015. (Bob Mersereau/CBC)

Artists who were jaded about the awards process before ECMA made the change have told the organization they now feel better about submitting. 

“I think they do feel better about the process,” he said. “Our goal is to make it a 100 per cent level playing field.” 

There had been complaints in the past from delegates that they were seeing many of the same artists showcasing year after year — Stairs thinks there’s better regional representation there too. 

 “If you’re having a successful career and you’re working well and working consistently, that will be reflected in your jury scores,” Stairs said. ECMA continues to refine its processes, especially in the weighting of various scores, he said. 

Who cares?

“Even the nomination is something that carries significant weight,” Stairs said. 

Audiences at his venue in central Newfoundland take notice of whether an act is billed as an ECMA winner or nominee, and he sees it reflected in ticket sales, he said. 

“So it continues to hold value and it continues to be a career-enhancing step.”  

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