A shift in tone for music awards

Dear Leader is one of the nominees for rock act of the year at this year’s Boston Music Awards. Dear Leader is one of the nominees for rock act of the year at this year’s Boston Music Awards. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff/File 2003)
By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / November 28, 2009

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The Boston Music Awards have managed a tricky feat this year. The annual showcase, which honors the best musical talent that Boston has to offer, is simultaneously scaling back and expanding its reach.

The 22d installment, which will be held Wednesday night at the Liberty Hotel, will include some notable changes and shifts in focus, besides a switch of venue. (The event took place at the Roxy last year and the Orpheum before that.) This year’s awards portion has been trimmed to 24 categories (from 28), with all of the “national’’ and “local’’ prefaces being dropped among individual honors. It’s a reflection of the seismic shifts in the music industry.

“We’ve always struggled every year when we’ve sat down with the nominating committee, asking, ‘OK, who’s national and who’s local?’ ’’ says BMA executive director Chip Rives. “But I think the way the music business is built right now, everybody has an opportunity to be national. It’s a very level playing field for the most part. You don’t have the 3 million-selling record anymore, but what you have are a lot of grass roots and indie successes. The new million-dollar record is getting your song in a major ad.’’

Dear Leader, a nominee for rock act of the year, had its song “Raging Red’’ in a Cadillac commercial. Bodega Girls, up for song of the year and DJ/electronic act of the year, first turned heads when featured on an episode of “Entourage.’’ Big Shug, nominated for hip hop act of the year, landed a role in Ben Affleck’s new film “The Town.’’

“Record sales no longer drive the success of most artists,’’ Rives says. “It’s about publishing, licensing, touring, film placement, et cetera. It’s not just about what’s happening here in Boston and who’s playing the Rat or the Channel anymore. It’s still a local scene, but [Boston artists] are making their name all over the place.’’

Indeed, the giddy electro-pop outfit Passion Pit, which leads this year’s BMA nominees with five nods including act of the year, has exploded onto the national indie-pop stage and blogosphere. New Wave revivalists the New Collisions, up for new act honors, toured with both the B-52s and Debbie Harry this past summer.

Likewise, the BMA’s reach has expanded. This year’s 180-member nominating committee is the largest ever, comprising a cross-section of representatives spanning every aspect of the industry - producers, publicists, labels, promoters, management companies, and media outlets. A bigger committee translates to a broader perspective and greater ability to recognize and reward previously overlooked musical communities. To that end, this year’s Boston Music Awards added a category - gospel/choir act of the year - and separated out R&B act of the year from last year’s conjoined R&B/pop category.

“We wanted to make sure we had every genre covered,’’ Rives says. “I think in the past, where this event has suffered a little, is that you only know what you know. We’ve been fairly strong on rock categories, and I think that’s been a reflection of people involved in the event.’’

Rives acknowledges that the drive to be inclusive is both the best and toughest part of the BMA’s mission. “This community is so diverse that we want to make sure that everyone who is contributing is recognized,’’ he says. “And it’s taken us some time for us to really learn about all the different areas of music in town.’’

Or, for that matter, what kind of awards presentation will work best. Like last year, Wednesday’s event will feature 15 nominees performing 30-minute sets spread across four rooms, rather than the one-song set of years past. Award winners will be announced via video during the middle portion of the evening, so that participants don’t have to be shuttled on and off the stage in quick succession.

“Awards shows are tough,’’ Rives says. “You can’t keep everybody happy. But we do listen and try to respond, and we try to keep making it better. And if this is the one night of the year when we can all come together and celebrate the great things that are happening, then I think we’ve succeeded.’’


THE BOSTON MUSIC AWARDS Take place Wednesday night at 7 at the Liberty Hotel. Tickets are $100 (VIP) and $20 (general admission), with proceeds going to the nonprofit foundation Music Drives Us, which supports school music programs. For information and to vote for nominees, visit

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