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Music Prize Targets Niche Artists

In an industry that obsesses over first-week album sales, heavy MTV rotation and radio airplay, the Shortlist Music Prize is trying to help offbeat or niche recording artists find a wider audience.

Now in its second year, the contest taps successful musicians to champion the work of peers who have yet to make an impact on the charts.

Among this year’s “listmakers” are India.Arie, Alanis Morissette (news), U2’s Larry Mullen Jr., and filmmakers Baz Luhrmann (news) and Spike Jonze (news).

“Most of the attention that records get as far as awards and all that stuff is based on record sales, as opposed to originality,” says Jonze, who has made videos for the Beastie Boys and others.

“Not that those don’t sometimes overlap, for sure. But as far as the creative people who don’t sell a lot of records, I kind of liked the idea of something that focused on them.”

This year’s nominees are Bjork, N.E.R.D., The Flaming Lips, Cee-Lo, Zero 7, Doves, The Hives, Aphex Twin, The Avalanches and DJ Shadow.

Greg Spotts, who founded the awards last year with MCA Records executive Tom Sarig, says, “We’re trying to push the balance back toward talking about artistry, because more of the coverage these days is about business and celebrity.”

Sarig and Spotts, friends for more than a decade, seem unlikely champions of underground artists. Sarig is vice president of A&R at MCA, and Spotts’ Greg Spotts Entertainment represents music producers, engineers and Web designers. Both are entrenched in an industry that they complain shows dwindling interest in investing in acts that can’t quickly deliver a substantial profit.

“There was a feeling earlier, when record companies were run by individual entrepreneurs, that having a record company was a bit like having an art collection,” says Spotts. “Your big seller of today would generate enough cash that you could chip off a little bit of money to invest in what might be the big seller of tomorrow.”

“Somewhere along the line, that’s not even remotely part of the calculation now.”

Sarig says it would be difficult for acts such as Prince or Pink Floyd, who put out numerous albums before finding commercial success, to make it today.

With major labels, he says, “you get like one or two chances, and that’s it. I’m part of the system, so I obviously work in it because I like what I’m doing, but at the same time, we’re trying to change it from within.”

The Shortlist prize is modeled loosely on Britain’s Mercury Music Prize, which honors the best in British music – usually artists whose critical acclaim outpaces their commercial appeal.

But while the Mercury is selected by critics and industry types, Sarig and Spotts also enlisted artists known for slightly off-kilter music. Last year’s listmakers included Beck, Mos Def, Macy Gray (news) and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, from The Roots. Mos Def and Thompson return on this year’s panel.

“That kid in Iowa might buy a record if he knows that Mos Def is into it, more than some critic,” explains Sarig. “We do have some critics on this panel, but we chose artists that are real and… musical activists, people who are sort of pushing the envelope, championing artistic, interesting music.”

The Shortlist listmakers select a handful of discs each; eligible albums must not have sold more than 500,000 copies. Their selections are then whittled down to a “shortlist” of 10.

Last year, most of the nominees – including Bilal, Gorillaz, Nikka Costa (news) and Ryan Adamswere new or emerging artists. This year, several veteran artists made the Shortlist, including Bjork and The Flaming Lips.

“At first we felt, what does that mean, that some of our finalists are already known?” says Spotts. “But then we felt, how cool that it’s recognizing not just the new artists, but the artists that have chosen to make a career off the beaten path – who aren’t moving center and center and center with each album to try and get more commercial.”

Other listmakers this year are Jill Scott (news), DJ Paul Oakenfold and Iggy Pop (news). The production duo The Neptunes were included until their sidegroup, N.E.R.D., was nominated.

Listmakers are to choose the winner at a dinner Tuesday (Oct. 29) before the awards ceremony, which is basically a jam session featuring many of the nominees. Last year’s winner, Icelandic band Sigur Ros, received a $10,000 prize; this year’s winner gets $3,000 worth of equipment from the Guitar Center stores and a $3,000 cash award from Tower Records.

While the Shortlist is having an impact – Sigur Ros’ sales went up – it still is something of an industry secret.

“To be honest, I don’t know anything about it, apart from what’s been explained to me in the last couple of days,” says Sam Hardaker of Zero 7, one of the nominees.

“If it just gives people (a chance) to hear stuff and find out a bit about artists, it’s good.”

Cee-Lo agrees. “That’s an inspiration in itself that they do exist, and the people involved recognize it (the music) as noble and viable,” he says. “That’s given me a great deal more energy to persevere.”

Spotts and Sarig plan other Shortlist projects, including a concert tour, and a literary prize celebrating avant-garde fiction. Sarig estimates the Shortlist venture has cost them $50,000 to $100,000 so far, but he says it’s worth it.

“To us, it’s all about exposing left-of-center culture,” says Sarig. “Greg and I are constantly brainstorming from this idea of how to branch out into other efforts that are going to further expose cool and interesting artists.”

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