I really like sitting on juries for grants and awards.  Though I’ll be the first to admit that both systems are flawed ways to fund and award artists for their work, and I’ve serious criticisms of each, I like to think there’s enough good in them that, to me at least, it’s valuable to be a part of the process.

I’ve been a juror for national awards like The JUNO Awards and Canadian Folk Music Awards, for provincial awards1, for local festivals like Artsweek Peterborough and for grants, most often for FACTOR.

I think it’s valuable for artists to know something about the process and a little of what motivates people to step up for this role.  As I’ve found in every aspect of life, an absence of clear communication and knowledge leads to a lot of rumour and speculation, and though I can only shed light on my own experience and motivations, I think it’s helpful to read about it.

So in light of that, here are my answers to a lot questions about the jury process for grants and awards.

Let’s see if I’m still welcome on juries after writing this!

Do jurors get paid?

In short: not really, no. Last year I sat on 3-4 juries for FACTOR, probably spending 8-10 hours on each.2 At the end of the year, as a thank-you, they send a $25 iTunes gift card.  It’s a much-appreciated gesture, and I’ve used it to buy music by Canadian artists,3 but that’s unusual. The JUNOs give you a souvenir booklet with your name in wee tiny type along with the other jurors in the back.  The other awards might offer you a discount on tickets to the awards presentation, or something like that, and a pleasant thank-you email.  

I’ve heard tell of juries that pay, or pay travel/accoms and a per diem, but haven’t been part of one of those processes myself. While I’m happy to accept something in exchange for my time, I’ve always considered jurying to be more of a volunteer effort, done for reasons beyond remuneration.

Are juries vetted?

Yes, though the processes vary.  Most of the time, you apply to be a part of a jury4 Generally they ask you for a brief outline of your experience and areas of expertise – specifically for me, my work in the music industry and the genres that I feel qualified to comment upon.  Once you submit that information, I’m not sure what they do with it – I’ve never been turned down for a jury, but then my resume looks pretty decent – but I’m sure that even a cursory Google would turn up evidence that I am, indeed, involved in the things I say I’ve been.  

It’s a process that I’m satisfied with – someone with experience in arts and culture can usually tell when another person’s claimed experience is valid or not, based on the way they word it.  It’s hard to explain, but there’s something obvious about someone falsifying arts experience.  The words are all wrong; the claims too emptily grand and easy to disprove. This is a good note for people writing grant applications – the jury can generally tell when you’re making things up.

Do jurors meet?

Fuck no, and thank goodness for that.  These days, most juries can be handled online,5 which is freaking brilliant.  I know a lot of people gnash their teeth over the death of the ‘everyone in one room’ jury, but I think there’s some distinct advantages to remote juries.  

Because most national and Ontario arts organizations are based in Toronto or Ottawa, their juries have traditionally been drawn from the relatively small pool of people who could physically make it to the place where the jury was held, often in offices that are very difficult to reach without a car.  

That meant that a very small, regionally and socio-economically-specific group of people from larger cities were making most of the decisions about who and what was successful.  Unlike their usual assumptions, the standard in larger communities isn’t necessarily more sophisticated, it’s often just more familiar. People from places with successful arts scenes can be incredibly hidebound and snobby, but what needs to get funded or recognized in Toronto isn’t necessarily what needs support in Thunder Bay or Timmins.  

Moving the process to the internet allows the opportunity to a more geographically-diverse jury, and that can only be a benefit.  Whether or not that is actually happening right now is debatable, but the opportunity is there now, and hopefully the juries will represent more than just people in major Canadian cities.

My second argument against a jury meeting in person is that one charismatic or articulate person can sway a room; I know this both because I’ve watched it happen, and because I’ve made it happen.  I’m more than capable of brow-beating & cajoling a small group of people until they either agree with me or concede to shut me up, and I’m happy to do it if I feel passionately about the subject. Or if I’m just feeling belligerent that day.  

In any case, it’s totally inappropriate in a jury setting, where people like me ought to be stopped and everyone’s voice ought to carry equal weight.  That’s hard to do in person; some people aren’t comfortable speaking in in groups, whatever their qualifications or intellect.  And I think meeting in person lends undue weight to men’s opinions, as (bless their hearts) they’re just used to being unchallenged, especially if they’ve been in the music industry for a long time.  

Are you allowed to tell people when you’re on a jury?

It really depends on the organizational guidelines. The JUNO Awards don’t want you to tell anyone until JUNO weekend after your award has been announced, which makes some sense6 Some awards ask that you never, ever tell anyone that you were on their jury, which doesn’t really make any sense to me.  

You can usually tell that I’m jurying something if you follow my Twitter account, because I start making comments about things bands do that make me crazy.  I’ve got my own code of ethics with this one – I don’t mention any identifying factors for any band that I’m criticizing.7 I’m not shy about saying that I’m jurying for FACTOR, for example, because most people would know from the timing/content of my tweets, but also because there are so many applicants, and I listen to artists from several different programs/genres, so it’s essentially impossible for anyone to know for sure that I’m on the jury for their application.8

Do people approach jurors to lobby for success?

I’ve only ever had one person approach me to ‘put in a good word’ for a program I was jurying, and the applicant they were lobbying for wasn’t in the pool of artists I received.  

I was polite, but much like when an artist’s dad approaches me to try to get me to book his kid’s band, I give it heavy side-eye.  Not cool.

Do jurors know each other or talk during the jury process?

Generally speaking, I don’t know who else is sitting on the jury of any of the awards or grants that I judge.  During times when I’m tweeting about stuff that I’m adjudicating, sometimes I’ll get a PM (Private Message) from someone I know who’s also on the jury; most often it’s something like ‘I was just looking at the application of the band you’re talking about!’

And some granting organizations give you a way to talk to other jury members if you like, but I’ve never used it nor seen any messages come in that way. Most jury members have strong opinions and expertise, and don’t need to solicit others for their thoughts during the process.

So if I saw a list of who was on the jury, I’d recognize a bunch of friends and colleagues, but generally-speaking, I don’t know at any given time who else is on the jury.

Can you sit on a jury if you’ve written a grant for the program they’re assessing?

Sometimes, yes.  I’m a grant-writer, but I’ve never been on a jury where a grant I’d written was being assessed.  Some orgs won’t allow you to sit on the jury if you’ve submitted a grant in that round, some ask that if you’re on the jury you recuse yourself from judging that particular grant application. To be frank, it’s really up to the ethics of the grant-writer to identify that they either have a conflict of interest (as in, if this grant is successful they will receive money) or wrote the grant.9

If I had a conflict of interest or had written the grant, I’d identify myself as such.10 I think most people would.  

Why do people sit on juries for grants or awards?

Thirst for power and fame!

Uh, seriously, there are lots of reasons, none of which are power or fame.  As a grant-writer, I like to be familiar with the jury process because that’s the best way to understand what does and does not fly with a jury.  Seeing other people’s applications makes me a better grant-writer.  And it’s cool to be a part of the process by which artists get paid for doing good work, which is my motivation for most of the arts work that I do.11

As a woman, a booker, and a person with a lot of opinions, I also feel that it’s important that my voice be in the mix for arts awards and grants.  You only have to glance at the music industry and the people whom we award to realize that the juries are often dominated by old white guys who’ve been in the industry for longer than I’ve been alive. I recognize their experience and all, but the small controversy around the recent release of The JUNO Award shortlists shows that the juries need to diversify.  I don’t have a breakdown, but I’m certain that few or no grant or award juries are composed of 50/50 men and women.  And though I’m 38, I’d bet that I’m on the young side of the juror pool. In my opinion, it’s worthwhile to add your voice to the mix – this is how we change the industry for the better.

Why did/didn’t the jury give me feedback on my application?

When the option is available, I leave feedback for grant applicants about 15% of the time, and only if something is a pretty glaring mistake or any easy-to-explain fix.  Most frequently, it’s ‘I’ve seen this almost-identical application 3 times, so you should talk to your grant-writer about making sure it’s a bit more tailored to your band.’ If the feedback would just be something like ‘Your music sucks,’ I skip it.  Not getting an award or a grant is bad enough, having an anonymous juror tell you that you should fire your bassist would only add insult to injury.

Also, I’m sitting on these juries as a volunteer, and so can only spare so much time to give feedback.  If you want an impartial, professional assessment of your band, music, promo materials, or grant applications, I absolutely recommend paying someone to give it to you.

Why wasn’t my application successful?

I’m struggling to bite my tongue on this one, because I really want to write something sarcastic, but the real answer is that your application probably wasn’t as good as the other applications.  Maybe it’s not as good as you thought; maybe your music isn’t as good as you think it is.  Maybe everyone on the jury that day liked your music, but thought that the Marketing plan was really bad. Maybe your music is really good, but everyone else’s music was better.  Maybe the planets weren’t in alignment.  Maybe a witch cast a spell over your application to make it fail.

Okay, I got a little sarcastic there.  I hear a lot of artists complain that juries are biased, that grant-writing is a secret language that only insiders know, that there’s a secret cabal working against them and all artists who don’t [something].12 I hear a lot of artists say that they spent three months working on a grant just to have it rejected, to which I ask ‘What were you doing that took you three months to write a touring grant?!’

The fact of the matter is that most artists don’t approach grant-writing like they approach song-writing or the other crafts of their art/business, though a small effort can really pay off.  They don’t practice to get better or look for information or a teacher.  They often don’t read the very helpful instructions or guidelines that accompany most grants.  A lot of them try it once, aren’t successful, and never try it again.

Here’s my advice: Keep trying. Read the guidelines. Ask friends who write successful grants for their advice.  Go to grant-writing workshops. Keep submitting grants.  Re-write old ones and re-submit to the same program – the jury is different each time.  Ask for feedback. Pay someone to write a grant for you, and read what they’ve submitted and learn from it.  Pay someone to review your old applications and give you suggestions for improvement.  I know I’m telling you to pay people a lot here, but remember: the world doesn’t owe you anything, and people with expertise have paid a lot in time, sweat, work, and money to gain it.  Whatever the brilliance of your genius, you are not owed anyone’s time, attention, or expertise.  And no matter how good your band, you’re not owed money from granting organizations nor the recognition of industry awards.  

I’ve seen and heard plenty of bitterness about the granting system and juries; a lot of it is utter nonsense, and some of it is very well-founded.  I feel for artists who, on top of cultivating all of the skills to be a great artist and small business owner, have to navigate an industry that often makes arbitrary and weird decisions favouring people with connections. The awards and grants that exist in this country often do favour connected people, but not always, and you can make headway even if you don’t know anyone.  Artists do it all of the time.

I think an article like this can help to demystify some parts of the music industry that otherwise seem inscrutable.  It’s just one person’s experience (certainly other people will have their own thoughts), but I think that we don’t talk about these things much, and I can’t see any good reason for it.  I certainly encourage other people to write their own articles, or comment below; let’s talk, let’s shed some light on these unexamined areas of the industry.  

  1. oddly enough, the only award that stipulates that jurors can’t tell anyone that they’ve juried is that of a small island province []
  2. Maybe more – I don’t really track or remember. []
  3. I’ve got my own code of ethics about these things []
  4. Yes, that’s something that you can do right now, if you’re so inclined. []
  5. I believe the OAC still does the ‘everyone in one room’ style, which probably makes sense for their grants. []
  6. though personally, I think that once the shortlist has been announced, there’s no reason to keep your involvement a secret. []
  7. Though some bands have chosen to see themselves in my comments and get offended, to which I say ‘If you see yourself in my critiques, that’s an argument for looking at what you’re doing and making some changes.’ []
  8. I honestly have no idea whether or not they have a rule about this; they’ll probably be in touch shortly to let me know! []
  9. Some grant-writers charge a flat-fee whether the grant is successful or not, some charge a percentage of the grant awarded. []
  10. Because unlike certain elected officials in the City of Toronto, I clearly understand what constitutes a conflict of interest. []
  11. I love paying artists; it’s fun and gratifying. []
  12. I’m going to note here that your gender and your ethnicity can and does hinder artists, especially when juries are mostly comprised of white dudes, but those artists aren’t typically the ones I hear complaining. []
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