The Creationists

Creating The Polaris Music Prize with Steve Jordan

January 20, 2021 Steve Waxman Episode 21
The Creationists
Creating The Polaris Music Prize with Steve Jordan
Show Notes Transcript

When Steve Jordan first introduced the concept of the Polaris Prize to the Canadian music industry, the idea was generally welcomed, though the artistic community was still a little sceptical going into the first show in 2006. Despite the scepticism, the Polaris Music Prize has flourished into and internationally recognized award.

Steve Jordan is what they call a music man.  He started his career working at a Top 40 radio station in Kingston Ontario before moving to Toronto to multitask at the independent label Kinetic Records doing radio promotion, publicity and A&R and then taking his A&R shingle to Warner Music and then True North Records.  Steve is now the senior director of CBC music.  In the early 2000s though, Steve had an idea for a different way to shine a light on the Canadian music scene.

In early 2020, it was announced that Steve Jordan was stepping down from the Polaris Prize to become the Senior Director of CBC Music. The position of Executive Director of the Polaris Prize is now being held by Claire Degenais. You can find out more information about the Polaris Prize at On the site you will find information about past winners as well as short and long list nominees. In addition to shining a light on new recordings, Polaris has instituted the Heritage Prize sponsored by The Slaight Family to honour albums released prior to 2006 - a sort of hall of fame, if you will.

Read the full transcript at

The Creationists is mastered in post production by Paul Farrant.

Follow The Creationists podcast on Facebook and Instagram. Please rate and review The Creationists on your favourite podcast platform.  You can reach us at

When Steve Jordan first introduced the concept of the Polaris Prize to the Canadian music industry, the idea was generally welcomed, though the artistic community was still a little sceptical going into the first show in 2006

Steve Jordan is what they call a music man.  He started his career working at a Top 40 radio station in Kingston Ontario before moving to Toronto to multitask at the independent label Kinetic Records doing radio promotion, publicity and A&R and then taking his A&R shingle to Warner Music and then True North Records.  Steve is now the senior director of CBC music.  In the early 2000s though, Steve had an idea for a different way to shine a light on the Canadian music scene.

* * *

Steve Waxman:  For people who don’t know, can you explain what exactly is the Polaris Music Prize?

Steve Jordan:  The Polaris Prize is a cash award for the Canadian Album of the Year as decided by music filters, journalists, broadcasters. playlist makers, but no one who actually works with, or for, artists directly. Publicists, managers, agents, anyone who directly makes money off of artists, they're not allowed to vote so it's really a critic's prize for the album of the year. It's modeled after the Giller Prize for Fiction in Canada, The Mercury Prize in the UK, which has been going on for a couple, a few decades now, and the idea of it is to kind of take the industry out of the determination of what is good or not. Not saying they're always right. But at least the opinion rendered as a one of musical value, and not commercial value.

Steve Waxman:  Well, can you go back to when you first started plotting out the idea for this. What was the impetus?

Steve Jordan:  There were a few things going on at the time. I think that the conditions in the Canadian marketplace, there was a real sort of turning point in the air with artists like Broken Social Scene, you know, very early on in Feist's career, Stars, Metric, Kaos there was a bunch of capital "A" artists who were not really being pursued by the major label system in Canada. Or, if they were being pursued by the major label system in Canada, they were rejecting that system and going out on their own. So that was kind of in the air at the time. I'd also been following the Mercury Prize for some time. I've been following the Giller Prize for some time and it really was just that divine kind of thing where the proverbial light bulb goes on over your head and it's like, why wouldn't this work in Canada, this could work in Canada. People used to, at least at some level, look at what the Giller Prize does for book sales and there's some awareness of the Mercury Prize in the UK or, at least, there was at that time, so it was like why not. And then I had that split second thought where you're like ‘Well, this seems like a really good idea, someone else must already be working on it,' and I kind of buried that thought, but it kept coming up again, it kept acid refluxing in my brain, so I had to. I had to pursue it.

Steve Waxman:  So, what did you do to start the ball rolling.

Steve Jordan:  I just talked to people. I was like, "Hey, I have this idea." Musicians, music journalists label folks, just people I knew in the industry at various levels and the response was always really positive. And what I didn't really realize at the time was I was kind of building a community around the idea. And it just kind of goes to show you a good idea, amongst everyone it just doesn't belong to you. And so, we sort of got that ball rolling to the point where I got some seed money from some supporters to start it up, organized a, just like an organizing committee which would then become a board of directors once we got a not for profit status. And that time, I was not a, and I'm still not a big shot in the music industry. So I got some of the more sympathetic big shots to back me so that when we're making some of those calls to get financial support, there were some heavier names than mine behind me. And so we were really blessed that there was some hierarchy that had gotten involved in the first few years to get off the ground.

Steve Waxman:  How did you figure out what you needed to do? I'm really curious about that because obviously there are a lot of pieces you've got to put in place, especially with regards to funding and with regards to becoming a nonprofit.

Steve Jordan:  Just surround yourself with smarter people than you who advise you on what it takes. I mean, it really was us building something from the ground up. So, a lot of trial and error too. I mean, you just do it. You just do it . How do you do it? You just do it. And then, if something doesn't work, you try something else. It's not like we had a plan. You know, we made plans, but those plans weren't based on anything else having happened before us. We didn't even really consult with, say the Mercury Prize until a couple years into it to sort of compare best practices. We did have Elana Rabinovitch who runs the Giller Prize in Canada. She was very involved with us early on and did give us some really good advice so that helped. You just surround yourself with people who are smarter than you with more experience. The other thing though is, the purity of the idea  that this would be something that appeals to people who take music very seriously, to a fault, even, and that it had to appeal to musicians and critics, and then people who give a lot of thought into their music intake. We had to appeal to those people first and if any decision we made was not doing that we had to think twice about making that decision. One for instance very early on, we were told that 'Hey if you need money, you're going to have to have a broadcast.' And my reaction to that was well we don't really know what this is. We don't really know what we're broadcasting. This is not going to be an award show like the Grammys or the MTV Awards or the JUNOS because there may or may not be quote unquote stars. We don't know who the nominees are yet, but we do know that we want there to be performances, maybe there'll be speeches and presentations. We're going to kind of make it up as we go. But we still don't know what it's going to look like. So why would we go pitch this to get TV money? And I think that seemed counterintuitive at the time and it may have been. But I was adamant that the first show we just do and we don't have cameras. We don't capture it just so everyone feels like, "A," it's special and it only lives in their heads and nowhere else and that the artists themselves don't feel like they're there because we don't know how much experience they would have performing in front of cameras or being recorded and that can make artists nervous so let's just do the first one, as a thing and see how people react.

Steve Waxman:  So how long was it from the time that the light bulb went off until you guys went up that first night?

Steve Jordan:  2001 was the lightbulb year. 2006 was the first play here.

Steve Waxman:  Holy smokes so, was this your all consuming passion for those five years?

Steve Jordan:  It was an all consuming passion for two years, a semi consuming passion for the next two years, because I had to get a job so I did some A&R work for Bernie Finkelstein at True North. But to Bernie's credit, when I took the gig with him I'm like, "I still have this idea I still want to work on it and see if I can get it off the ground," and he was very very okay with that. He's like "I think it's a great idea and I support it just as long as it doesn't affect your work," but I don't think it did. And then it became an all consuming passion and jI ust had one day at True North where I just decided "Look, if I don't try to full time get this off the ground it's not going to get off the ground."

Steve Waxman:  So then, how did you get the panel together?

Steve Jordan:  I think this really was back at the time when you're getting weekly papers shipped to the office to see the masthead. See who the music editors are. It was largely editorial like music editorial, print editorial based to start with some college radio, some commercial radio, but mostly it was mostly music writer based. So we just sourced all of those people who, back in 2006,there was still, people had daily newspapers writing about music on a regular basis. There were still weekly papers also writing about music on a regular basis with three or four music writers on the masthead. So that was who we had to start. It's evolved since then.

Steve Waxman:  How did you determine what the prizing was going to be?

Steve Jordan:  The funding the first year, I think we raised about $50,000. No, I think we raised about $30,000 and we had to pay for catering, and we had to pay for prize money. So that's how we determined what it was. Everything else we got donated. And I think FACTOR gave us $5,000, to put on that first year. Just like, 'Well, here's a little starter. See what you can do with this.

Steve Waxman:  So actually, going back to the journalists for just a second here, did you start approaching the journalists before all the pieces were put in place just to see what the interest was going to be?

Steve Jordan:  Absolutely, yeah, there were a few key ones that we kind of wanted to get on board right away. You know, if the coach can establish a bond with Michael Jordan, the rest of the team sort of falls into line. So that was kind of the approach back then and we definitely did have some enthusiastic early supporters to help bring everybody along. And it was important, too, we had Liisa Ladouceur who was a very early organizer and board member. So we knew that there was a lot of mutual respect for Liisa. And we hoped that seeing Liisa support this, and she's a very critical critic, would help some others follow.

Steve Waxman:  So, how was it received the first year?

Steve Jordan:  It's funny cuz, pretty good, well, really good. Overwhelming. We had a goal, you know, we're gonna try this for a couple years and hopefully it builds up an audience by the third or fourth year and people will start to give a shit. And that really happened right away. The media attention we got was almost like there was a pent up demand for something like this. You know the artists themselves were nominated that year we got a few of them. We didn't get all of them. I think there was a sort of sit back and see kind of scenario like let's see what this thing is all about. I remember talking to The New Pornographers afterwards Carl, from The New Pornographers. I ran into him and I was like so, because he was there but he didn't perform and I asked him "Did you enjoy yourself?" And he was just like "Steve, if I had known it would have been such a great concert I would have performed." So there was kind of like a wait and see if anyone cares, wait and see if this is legit from the artists. I think people who cared about music, there was a bit of ‘What is this thing?' 'Why are there no big hit artists,' although there were some certainly. Sarah Harmer had a following and she was nominated. K'naan, New Pornographers, they were not complete unknowns, but there were some complete unknowns on the list. And then, I think, what really sealed the deal for people, was when Owen Palett and Final Fantasy won. So they knew that thing wasn't quote unquote rigged for the popular artists. That the decision making actually was happening that night, that it was based on a determination of wh at people thought the most important record was. So I think that really kind of sealed it in the imaginations of those few people who were following at the time and I think it just kind of grew from there. 

Steve Waxman:  How many people came to the first show?

Steve Jordan:  Whatever the capacity of the Phoenix is with tables. So we filled the room. I want to say 900, but I thought that may not be accurate. I honestly don't remember but the room was filled with tables in the balcony and all that.

Steve Waxman:  So, have there been any particular breakout successes that really started with the Polaris Prize?

Steve Jordan:  There's been a few. Jeremy Dutcher, who won a few years ago, definitely. Tanya Tagaq who was not in obscurity, for sure, she was a renowned artist in many ways, but she sent me a note, such a grateful note after she won saying “Thank you for putting food on my table. I can now do music full time.” And what she does is, it ain't gonna be played on Virgin Radio anytime soon. And that's fine. There should be room for artists who are too weird and too deep, or too whatever for commercial radio. And so that's another one. But you know, even when Arcade Fire won for The Suburbs a good eight to twelve months after their album had been released, even that shot up in terms of streams and sales, which was totally weird to me. You're thinking, it already won the Grammy already for Album of the Year. Are there still people who haven't heard this record?   So, In terms of making careers, there are some tangible things that happen to artists who win Polaris. Their asking price goes up. There's all these really tangible things but really the real benefit, I think, is for non mainstream media embraced artists to be treated as artists and I think all the nominees benefit from that.

Steve Waxman:  How weird was the concept of having to present a big check to Arcade Fire?

Steve Jordan:  I don't think it's weird at all. I would say there are authors who won the Giller Prize who were already successful. I don't know how well off they were and how well off do we know anyone is really? You see someone being super successful and you assume that there's some financial stability there. But I didn't find it weird at all. The whole notion of giving out of the money in ways is not just about supporting struggling talent. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won't. It really is a hook to get you into paying attention. Who's gonna get the big check. You just sort of pretty much hope that the more well off winners will consider charity or supporting other talent like some have in the past. Same with Feist I think she did the same thing when she won for Metals. Yeah, so I don't know, not that weird to me.

Steve Waxman:  Did you guys have to deal with any controversial ones?

Steve Jordan:  Oh no, there's never been any controversial winners of Polaris ever (laughing).

Steve Waxman:  Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that would be sarcasm.

Steve Jordan:  Yeah, but you know certainly there's been controversies in small and big ways almost every year. In some way was it controversial for a popular band to win? I guess. I think what we're proudest of, I think Claire would probably agree with this, is that the controversies are never around process. They're never around ‘this thing is rigged.’ This is unfair. You know, one thing that, again, I think Claire would agree with is, Polaris is responsive to criticisms. It doesn't mean we always agree with them but there have been some more than reasonable ones that we have acted on. One is the balance of the jury, it's too male. And at one point our response to that was 'Wwell, now there's an open process for applying, anyone can apply.' But then when you look at the applications and you see that, out of thirty there are four women, our reaction at the time was not to just accept that as fact. We actually went, 'Well, that can't be true. There has to be more women covering and filtering music in this country.' Spend two hours on the internet just doing some digging and you find that there are people who don't apply, and so you just invite them to apply, and we did. And so, I think as of last year or the year before. Polaris is now 50/50 on its jury, which was a target that we set. And that was based on feedback from people who called us out on that. But again I don't think there have been any controversies about the actual process. The controversies have been about artists speaking freely. And that's a thing we're actually, I think, pretty proud of, that we give artists that platform, and don't censor them in any way and don't control their messaging. I think that's why people respect Polaris.

Steve Waxman:  So, again, for the people that don't know all the backroom details of the Polaris Prize Can you explain how it's determined who the nominees are?

Steve Jordan:  Absolutely. So, we have a larger jury. That jury decides the long list of forty, which comes out in June. They then vote again for the shortlist of ten, which comes out in July. And then we invite eleven people from that larger jury to form the grand jury which decides the winner. That grand jury is always at least six women and five dudes. It is always at least six people from outside of Toronto, Ontario. And every single shortlisted record, there are ten shortlisted records, every single shortlisted record has one champion for that record. In other words, somebody who voted for that record number one on their ballot. And they are the ones that, in the discussions, go first and say this is why this record should win. We send them all ten records and they're instructed to become intimate with all the records, to listen to them as full albums and not ten albums on a shuffled playlist, until they are sick of all of them equally. And make notes. And then we invite everybody to Toronto, I'm not exactly sure what they're doing this year in the pandemic year. That's something one would have to ask Claire who's running Polaris now and who is doing an excellent job by the way, and was my right hand, left hand for a great many years. So Polaris is in good hands right now. But they would, in a normal year, come to Toronto. We have a big dinner the night before and that's where the discussion happens. So, the person who picked an album goes first, says why they should win. They have five minutes. Everybody else is allowed to weigh in on what they think of that record. And then the person who went first gets to go last. Again, well be that as it may, I still think it should win because of x y and z, and then we just move on through all of the records. There's wine. There are smoke breaks. And it is always the thing I'm going to miss most about not being there, moderating that discussion. They're not allowed to talk about an artist's live show. That doesn't enter into it. All of the discussion is about the album. You're not allowed to discuss whether they deserve to win or not because they're rich, not rich, famous, not famous. It really is all about rewarding the art. Now, some of those considerations can come into someone's actual voting and there's nothing Polaris can do to really control that but if our democracy operated the way that the Polaris jury operates, I think we'd be so much better off because there's so much listening there's so much respect for other people's opinions. There's so much openness to hearing other people's opinions. I have seen someone who came into that jury process going 'Man, I just don't get it,' and then someone says well here's why I think it's awesome and then they'll go, 'Hmm, I'm going to go back and listen to it.' So the next day, the Monday of the gala, all afternoon, that's when the jury gets to re-listen. I think in the past few years we've actually gotten some headphones gifted from sponsors and we say "Okay, take these headphones, take all your records onto your phone or whatever, go walk through Trinity Bellwoods Park," because the hotel is right near there and "Go take a second listen to anything you need to take a second listen to." And so they spend all day reconsidering and we gather them again the night of the gala, while the gala is going on and that's when the actual voting happens. So, first, immediately before they even talk, they have a vote. Five records are eliminated immediately. So that's where the really interesting pivots happened because if you had your heart set on something you may have a sense, based on discussions from the night before where things may or may not go. But you have to pivot if your record was in one of those five, you got to pivot to another record. And then there's discussion around the remaining five. Two more voted off. There's discussion on the last three. Then there's a final vote. One time in our history there has been a tie amongst two of those final three and we had to bring everybody back for a six to five vote because there are eleven grand jury members there's always one tiebreaker, who was who was a bit of a wild card. So that's the process, and it's not flawless and it's not foolproof but it's pretty interesting to see how people, the people on that jury, embrace the conversation and really open themselves up to each other.

Steve Waxman:  I mean it sounds really intense, too, which is great because I think that one of the things that's really awesome about the way you've set it up, is that it becomes a conversation between people that are passionate about music. And, it takes us back to when we were you know 15, 16, 17 years old and we would argue records with our friends,

Steve Jordan:  And that's exactly what I wanted to do with it.  You just nailed it, man. That's all it is. That is all it is. It's a bunch of music nerds arguing about records, and everybody wins, really, in a way. Sure, one person wins a bunch of money or one artist wins a bunch of money. But what interests me about it, is just the conversation itself, not really the outcome of the conversation but the conversation itself. What are someone's aesthetic values and examining that, and, why do you like this thing that I don't think I like. And then you know, once you hear why someone likes something, they go, 'Huh I never thought of it that way. I'm going to go back and look,' so it's actually a bit of an empathy building exercise like when you actually hear someone else say why they like something and you didn't consider and then you go back and listen, literally through their ears. Not literally through their ears, but figuratively through their ears. That would be weird if it was literally through their ears, that would be kind of violent and we might have to call the whole thing off. But, it's like when you do that, it's such a great process. It really is. You know, we've been asked to reveal that process, like would you ever have cameras in the room. You know, it would be so great to be a fly on the wall and, first of all, I'm not sure how interesting that would be to people, but we see really huge TV shows where people are rendering their judgments about talent all the time. So I guess there is sort of a cultural interest in that and this will just be kind of like a more, I don't know, not intellectual, but, I guess, a more detailed version of that and totally based on music and not based on the quality of someone's voice necessarily. It's more about how the music affects people and what the music does. So, I don't know. But at the same time, I don't want artists to hear, and I'm not saying this happens all the time but, I don't want artists to hear jury members kind of dissing their music. This is supposed to be a positive thing not a negative thing. And there was also that possibility that perhaps someone's, because there are people in the room, usually men, who feel very confident in their opinions, because they were used to talking over people all the time. And not to stereotype, but sometimes they were just some shyer people and that's why we make the balance of it women over guys because the dynamic just changes. The power dynamic changes and people feel a lot more open to express themselves but there's still some people you kind of have to draw a little bit. They're a little shy of expressing their opinion and you just don't want to burden that process more with cameras watching your every move. People might not feel so free to express their opinion.

Steve Waxman:  Great. Now, last couple of questions here with regards to Polaris. One is, did it become what you envisioned? And two, which would be the second question so we could wrap them all together all together has it changed from your initial vision, either in a good way, or in a bad way.

Steve Jordan:  I think it's gone beyond our expectations of what we envisioned. You know, it's internationally recognized. I didn't expect that, really. at a certain point, I had to sit down with the people running the Mercury Prize, and they were asking me questions about how we ran our stuff, almost as if we were equals, and that was really huge for me. I still don't know that we are, you know. There's a different musical culture in the UK and with the Mercury Prize you still see massive massive boost in actual music consumption with a win. Our systems just sort of set up differently and, although there's certainly huge benefits to artists winning, it's just there wasn't that same thing. But for them to finally take us seriously was pretty huge. And I know Claire has been doing some work with some Canadian consulates around the world to be a bit of a music filter for some of their programming which is which is huge for us. So the international thing is beyond expectation. That's kind of the beauty of it, it's kind of surpassed expectation and kind of turned out how we wanted it to turn out. And I think the most amazing thing is the community that's been built around it. You know, there aren't a lot of people on the jury now that were there when we started in 2006. Right now, Melissa Vincent, who's the the jury foreperson, the first year we invited her to the jury she told me that she grew up with Polaris, which was such a weird concept, and you never stopped to think about it but when you get into your fifteenth year you're like 'Well, I guess that makes sense doesn't it.' You know, she used to gather on campus with some friends and they would watch the live stream and some people would bet on the outcome. So there's a whole culture that's built up around it that we weren't even aware of. And that's the next kind of generation of the people who are gonna decide what direction it goes. That's the other thing that I think we're really proud of, or I'm really proud of, just sort of looking back is, leaving Polaris was not an easy decision to make. But at a certain point, you're like, 'I think it's in good hands.' And with Claire, it's definitely in good hands in terms of the organizational and the directional aspect of it. But with the jury that is kind of running things now, they're the ones that kind of determine the musical future of it and I feel like it's in great hands.

* * *

In early 2020, it was announced that Steve Jordan was stepping down from the Polaris Prize to become the Senior Director of CBC Music. The position of Executive Director of the Polaris Prize is now being held by Claire Degenais. You can find out more information about the Polaris Prize at On the site you will find information about past winners as well as short and long list nominees. In addition to shining a light on new recordings, Polaris has instituted the Heritage Prize sponsored by The Slaight Family to honour albums released prior to 2006 - a sort of hall of fame, if you will.