Turn­ing mic on our mu­sic critic

How does Ben Rayner bal­ance his job at the Star with role as Po­laris ju­ror?


This story is part of the Star’s trust ini­tia­tive, where, ev­ery week, we take read­ers be­hind the scenes of our jour­nal­ism. This week, we fo­cus on how Ben Rayner bal­ances his roles as both mu­sic critic for the Star and a ju­ror for the Po­laris Mu­sic Prize.

This Mon­day, the win­ner of the 2017 Po­laris Mu­sic Prize will be an­nounced at a gala at the Carlu in Toronto. The $50,000 prize will go to an artist for Cana­dian Al­bum of the Year, as voted by a group of about 200 mu­sic jour­nal­ists, blog­gers, broad­cast­ers and pro­gram­mers. Among them is the Star’s pop mu­sic critic, Ben Rayner, who has been a Po­laris jury mem­ber since the in­cep­tion of the prize in 2006. This year, he’s also on the jury for the Po­laris Her­itage Prize, which cel­e­brates Cana­dian al­bums from 1960 through 2005.

For this week’s trust fea­ture, we turn the mi­cro­phone on Rayner, who has been in­ter­view­ing mu­si­cians and re­view­ing con­certs for more than 20 years, to find out how he bal­ances his crit­i­cism with the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of be­ing on the jury for one of Canada’s most pres­ti­gious arts awards.

Given that you have been around for quite awhile and you know a lot of peo­ple in the mu­sic in­dus­try, how dif­fi­cult is it for you to judge artists for a ma­jor prize?

It’s hard in this coun­try, be­cause it’s such a small coun­try, to not get to know peo­ple. From my per­spec­tive, I’m kind of in a good po­si­tion be­cause I’m a critic — I’m per­mit­ted to play favourites. The whole jury process for Po­laris is con­fi­den­tial, too. So I don’t feel like I’m slight­ing any­body, although I will say that on my long list and short list bal­lot, I had Weaves, Tanya Ta­gaq and Lisa LeBlanc as some of the records I voted for. Do I maybe feel guilty about sin­gling out Weaves or Tanya over some other artist? Maybe, but I do think I have some lee­way from a jour­nal­is­tic stand­point be­cause I’m a critic. I’m kind of an open book. Hon­esty is ba­si­cally all you’ve got in my line of work.

What steps do you take to try to keep your judg­ing for Po­laris as un­bi­ased as pos­si­ble?

Po­laris jury mem­bers have an on­line dis­cus­sion group that goes on year-round where peo­ple put forth sug­ges­tions for lis­ten­ing. I think most of us are pretty dili­gent about lis­ten­ing to as much stuff as pos­si­ble. When we were vot­ing for the long list, which ends up be­ing 40 records, it’s pretty easy to jot down the records that you like. For the sec­ond round of vot­ing, re­sult­ing in a short list of 10 records, I’ll try to lis­ten and make sure I’m not miss­ing out on some­thing awe­some that de­serves to be on the list. That’s just due dili­gence.

When it comes to your daily crit­i­cism, how do you bal­ance your pro­fes­sional obli­ga­tions with per­sonal re­la­tion­ships you might have with mu­si­cians?

It is hard. I do a piece on Bro­ken So­cial Scene when each al­bum comes around and yet band mem­bers Kevin (Drew), Bren­dan (Can­ning) and Justin (Peroff ) are all friends of mine. It’s a del­i­cate dance. I wouldn’t let my­self re­view a show by a friend. I’ll still do in­ter­views, although they’re awk­ward . . . it’s strange to in­ter­view some­one with whom you’re friendly. It is kind of an un­avoid­able con­se­quence of do­ing this job in this coun­try for as long as I have.

Does the fact that you are old friends with Po­laris Mu­sic Prize founder Steve Jordan af­fect how you cover sto­ries re­lated to the award?

While I write about the fact that the gala is hap­pen­ing, I try not to write about it from a crit­i­cal stand­point be­cause I would feel some bias as it’s my friend’s event. Gen­er­ally, I don’t usu­ally do com­men­tary on it. I’ll cover the an­nounce­ment of the short list or the long list be­cause that’s just fac­tual and it doesn’t re­quire any in­put from me. What I’ve done a cou­ple of times is I get all of the nom­i­nees, or as many as pos­si­ble who are on the short list, to say who ide­ally they would like to win in­stead of them. That frees me from the bur­den of hav­ing to eval­u­ate how it went.

What is your process for pick­ing your top five al­bums of the year for Po­laris?

I know some peo­ple prob­a­bly ag­o­nize a lit­tle more over their choices for the pick, but I just go with my five favourites. Then when it gets down to the short list, maybe I’ll be a lit­tle more an­a­lyt­i­cal and I’ll lis­ten to stuff I might not know and some­times you’ll value some­thing that’s a lit­tle chal­leng­ing and brave but not par­tic­u­larly pleas­ant to lis­ten to. Some­times I will catch my­self vot­ing for some­thing I don’t par­tic­u­larly want to lis­ten to. But usu­ally I stop my­self and just go nope, these are my five. Email your ques­tions to trust@thes­tar.ca.


Ben Rayner, the Star’s pop mu­sic critic, says it’s hard to bal­ance pro­fes­sional obli­ga­tions and per­sonal re­la­tion­ships with mu­si­cians.

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