Polaris Music Prize: What happens

You may have heard of the Polaris Music Prize — it is the $30,000 award for the Canadian album of the year, regardless of genre or sales, chosen by music critics, bloggers and broadcasters from across the country.

The CBC's Katherine Duncan details what goes in to picking the $30K Canadian album of the year prize

2012 Polaris Prize-winner Feist, centre, accepts her $30,000 cheque from gala emcees Lauren Toyota, left, and Grant Lawrence as well as members of 2011 winner Arcade Fire, at right. (Dustin Rabin/Polaris Music Prize)

You may have heard of the Polaris Music Prize — it’s the $30,000 award for the Canadian album of the year, regardless of genre or sales, chosen by music critics, bloggers and broadcasters from across the country.

The jury members come from print and broadcast media outlets large and small, campus radio stations, niche music blogs, freelance journalists, published authors and even the odd university professor.


The short list

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

Zaki Ibrahim

Every Opposite





Purity Ring


Colin Stetson

New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light

Tegan and Sara


A Tribe Called Red

Nation II Nation


The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss

Young Galaxy


As a member of this large, diverse group for the past three years, I’ve been excited and challenged by the huge range of music I’ve heard, discussed and eventually voted on to come up with a long list of 40, which gets narrowed down to a shortlist of 10.

In previous years, that’s as far as my involvement has gone. This year, I’ve been invited to serve on the 11-member grand jury which will actually select the winner. It’s an honor, for sure, but also a bit intimidating.

Here’s what will happen.

Between now and the Polaris Gala on Sept. 23, I and my fellow jurists will be studying, listening obsessively and generally becoming intimate with all 10 shortlisted albums. "Shuffle" is strongly discouraged. After all, this is an award for an album, not a song.

Beyond our musical astuteness (!) and a willingness to argue passionately for the music we believe in, we’ve been selected for grand jury-duty based on traditional Canadian ideas of fairness — such as gender and regional balance, size and genre of media type — but more importantly based on our previous voting patterns, to avoid stacking the deck in favor of a particular choice, and so that each album on the shortlist has a fervent champion.

The night before the gala, we’ll meet in person for the first time in Toronto, for what’s billed as the "Epic Dinner": a multi-hour discussion (over dinner) of each album on the list. We don’t do any voting that first evening. The idea is to let what we’ve heard -- and said -- sink in. The next day, many of us will go back and take a second or third listen to music we may have previously discounted, based on what other jurors have said.

Then, on Sept. 23, early in the evening of the Polaris Gala, we meet again to vote by secret ballot. Our first ballot reduces the list to five. There’s discussion, followed by a second ballot, which reduces the field to three. A final discussion, a final vote, and we get sent away to join the gala.

That’s the kicker — even though we’ve been in on discussions and voting from beginning to end, none of us on the grand jury will know who the winner is when we leave the room.

Instead, we go to join the party, watch performances by the shortlisted bands, and wait. We’ll find out the winner the same way everyone else does — when it’s announced from the stage of The Carlu in Toronto.

I’ll be spending the next month deep in the listening room. If you want to join me, follow along on Twitter @CBCKeyofA and @CBCInTune or on Facebook.


Katherine Duncan

Key of A Host

A classically trained musician, Katherine hosts CBC Music (formerly Radio 2) programs Choral Concert and Centre Stage, and highlights original music by Alberta artists on CBC Radio 1's Key of A. From 2016 to 2019, she served as Jury Foreperson of the Polaris Music Prize.