“Where are the Silver Scrolls we deserve?” Hussein Moses asked in a piece he wrote for The Wireless last Friday, the morning after the annual songwriting award ceremony. He went on to make various criticisms of the event, before concluding, “perhaps it’s time for an overhaul.”
For a start, his question begs another question. Who are “we”, and whose Scrolls are they anyway?
The Silver Scroll Award was begun in 1965 by APRA – the Australasian Performing Right Association – to recognise excellence in the work of its members: the songwriters. The winner is not decided by the public, or by sales or airplay figures, but by APRA members who vote from a shortlist that a panel has whittled down from hundreds of entries.
So the Scrolls is primarily for the songwriters, their publishers, and the various people involved in issuing licenses and collecting royalties for use of their work.
As for the rest of us, in recent years we have been able to sit in on the ceremony from the comfort of our homes via RNZ’s coverage. As some fraction of our taxpayer dollars goes towards funding the broadcast, Hussein might be justified in asking whether we’re getting good bang for our buck.
Well, we’re certainly getting a lot of bang: two-and-a-half hours in total. And Hussein is right that some of the speeches, honouring long-serving CEO’s and so on, are of little relevance to most of the public. “It felt like sitting through a work function,” he complained. Yet for the people who have made their lives in this particular industry it is a work function.
If these were the Accountancy Awards or Farmer of the Year contest, most of us would have no interest at all. The reason we want to watch the Scrolls is that it is about music and entertainers, and as punters and fans we feel invested in them. We want to hear the music we like, and see our favourites win.
A simple solution would be to condense the performance and awards part of the evening into one snappy show and only broadcast that part. The industry speeches and in-house backslapping could all happen earlier and off-air.
As for the finalists, Hussein complained that we didn’t get to see them, or any other ‘A-list musicians’. But it is a Scrolls tradition that the finalist songs are presented not by the original performers but in fresh interpretations. In contrast to the NZ Music Awards, which is dominated by celebrities and obsessed with sales, what is being celebrated here is the song, as this tradition reminds us.
A lot of this year’s surprises were due to the choices of Shayne Carter, this year’s musical director. The Maioha Award winner – Alien Weaponry’s thrash metal song ‘Raupatu’ - was elegantly adapted to taonga puoro by Ariana Tikao, James Webster, Alistair Fraser and Horomona Horo. Tiny Ruins gave Chelsea Jade and Leroy Clampitt’s ‘Life Of The Party’ a warm and twanging treatment, complete with dance steps.
Given Carter’s history, there had to be guitars, and guitar duo Kahu provided an intense and electrified reading of Salina Fisher’s SOUNZ-award winning classical composition ‘Torino’.
There were a few misfires. Death and the Maiden flattened Nadia Reid’s ‘Richard’ with out-of-tune singing. KVKA and Stuss made a brave fist of Aldous Harding’s ‘Horizon’ but got snagged by electronic malfunctions. Drogan made an inventive drum-and-keyboard duet out of Bic Runga and Kody Neilson’s ‘Close Your Eyes’, but without the lyrics the song seemed only half there.
Then there was Ron Gallipoli’s reading of Lorde’s ‘Green Light’. Maybe the vision of a guy in a powder blue suit crooning ‘I put my makeup on in someone else’s car…” was too much for the song. Maybe the fact that I’m still thinking about it means Gallipoli achieved exactly what he set out to.
There were some ‘only-in-Dunedin’ moments. Poet Dave Merritt, in beard and beanie, inducted The Clean into the NZ Music Hall Of Fame with eloquence and profanity. Having turned down the honour before, the indie stalwarts almost missed out a third time when drummer Hamish Kilgour appeared to get lost on his way to the stage.
In a moving tribute to the late Roy Colbert – doyen of the Dunedin scene – the Verlaines’ went operatic with a symphonic arrangement of Graeme Downes’s ‘Dirge’, one of Colbert’s favourite songs.
There was the heartening fact that while female membership of APRA in New Zealand has been under 24 per cent (something the organisation has taken initiatives to remedy), all five finalist songs this year were written or co-written by women.
And Hussein seemed to like this year’s winner, ‘Green Light’, in marked contrast to last year’s winner, which he called ‘one of the worst New Zealand songs of the year’. If he had had to listen to every single entry – a task voters are spared, thanks to the pre-selection by long-suffering panellists - he would realise that wasn’t actually true. As someone who has sat on that panel before, there are many worse songs, take my word for it.
Yet in the end, to think there is some measurable criteria for a ‘best song’ is absurd anyway. Excellence comes in many different forms. The great thing about the Scrolls is that it celebrates the unseen stuff, the skill and craft of making songs that is often obscured by celebrity, publicity and things that have little to do with music.
Perhaps the wisest words of the evening came from finalists Bic Runga and Chelsea Jade, when Radio NZ’s Alex Behan talked to them just before the show. To Chelsea, it wasn’t even a competition. Just being in the company of Runga, Yelich-O’Connor, Harding and Reid was reward enough. And as Bic put it: “It’s not boxing, where there’s a clear winner. It’s the listener that imbues a song with meaning.”