Changes Are Coming for the RFT Music Awards


The Illphonics: One of the groups I got to see Saturday. They rock. - PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • The Illphonics: One of the groups I got to see Saturday. They rock.

There are competitions that make sense, and there are competitions that make no sense. In the former category: Olympic track and field, the race for mayor, the myriad online ballots asking for your vote for the best burrito in St. Louis.

In the latter: the Academy Awards, the Democratic Party presidential primary and the RFT Music Awards. All involve a lot of good people and plenty of worthy winners – but all are processes that quickly become frustrating.

Why? Well, you don't want to get me started on the cabal of old white men who choose Oscar winners or the byzantine party rules that determine which candidate gets the most delegates even after a charming old socialist defies projections to win state after state (sorry, bitter Bernie Sanders voter here). But as I was listening to an awesome local band at Atomic Cowboy on Saturday, I realized the RFT Music Awards have some of the same flaws as those other two undertakings for one reason: Often we get great winners not because of the process, but in spite of it.

And that's nobody's fault but … ours. Ask around at the RFT, and you won't find anyone defending the system, but you will hear plenty of people say this is how we've always done it. And so for years on end, the RFT's Committee of Wizened Elders (venue owners/employees, promoters, talent buyers, record store staff, critics and other music lovers) has chosen the best bands in the city, and then our music editor and writers have gone about awkwardly trying to shoehorn those bands into recognizable categories for your voting pleasure.

All good in theory, but in reality, no one's happy. The shoehorning is a virtual shitshow in this day of a million uncategorizable genres. The RFT's idea of an Indie Rock band is sometimes the band's idea of a pure Rock band … or do they mean Hard Rock? And don't even get me started on the line between Pop and Indie Pop. The categories are meant to make things easier, but they really just overwhelm in a mess of hairsplitting.

And that's even before you get to the voting. Speaking of the Oscars, Humphrey Bogart once said maybe the Academy should just let everyone play Hamlet and then they could figure out who's really the Best Actor. I get the sentiment – absent having one of those old-school “battle of the bands,” trying to determine whether this band is better than that can be maddening for true fans.

And most of us, when it comes to the local music scene, are far from fervent. I suspect that for a large percentage of us, voting in this contest feels kind of like voting for city comptroller – you pick the name that sounds most familiar and hope to God it's not because its bearer was in the news for something bad.

I was thinking about all that at Saturday's RFT Music Showcase. It was a terrific day, full of winning performances, great music and the kind of good humor that makes even total strangers feel like fellow travelers. Our organizer, Joseph Hess, put on a hell of a show, and it was downright thrilling to be a part of the audience.

But the voting. Ugh. The showcase is meant to be a prelude to Music Awards voting – ideally, you go home and fill out your ballot while high on the great shows you witnessed. But even as I marveled at the day's performances, my ballot stopped me in my tracks. Even for the half-dozen shows I caught, did I really know the bands were any better than the groups I missed? And beyond that, what business did I have trying to judge any of them? Let's face it: The Music Awards have never been about competition because music isn't about competition. That's one reason the Grammys are frequently so silly. They don't honor the best bands. They just try to make the record companies happy.

Closer to home, the showcase on Saturday was about camaraderie, community, even critical judgment (after all, those Wizened Elders picked these bands to play for a reason). But competition? That wasn't the spirit that animated Saturday, nor should it have been. The performers chosen by our panel are among the 150 best in the city. Isn't that what really counts?

So next year, things are going to change around here. We'll still convene our panel of elders, and we'll do it even more carefully, with representation from all the scenes that really matter in this city. After they pick St. Louis' best bands, we'll still invite those bands to come together and make the showcase one of the most exciting days for our city's music lovers. And yeah, next year, we'll still devote an issue to highlighting the bands that have been chosen.

But next year, we're not going to present some sort of artificial genre categorization, and we're not going to try to turn this into a competition when it's not. Next year, we're going to call it what it is: A celebration.

If Saturday proved anything, it's that the talent in this city has never been more impressive. In 2017, we'll drink to that once again – and this time, we'll do it without voting. Save that for the politicians.

Sarah Fenske is the editor in chief of the Riverfront Times. Contact her on email at or follow her on Twitter @sarahfenske.

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