Trying to Make Sense of the OC Music Awards Nominees

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Everyone I've talked to about the OC Music Awards nominee list, released yesterday, seems to have the same reaction: Huh? Why are young, unsigned bands like The Jakes competing against veteran, internationally known acts like The Offspring, who had Billboard's #1 Hot Modern Rock Track for 11 weeks last year?

Even the blog comments (which, to be fair, are usually pretty negative anyway), share the sentiment: "Is April 1st tomorrow? This must be a joke. Ha." "what happened to helping those in orange county break out? we dont need to give credit to those that already get all around the world."

The Offspring aren't even the most egregious pick; at least they had a successful release last year. How about the Vandals, who haven't released a studio album since 2004's Hollywood Potato Chip, but still managed to score a nomination for "best punk." (Also odd given that Joe Escalante of the Vandals is one of the academy members.) Their competitors? Zebrahead (who had a brief flirtation with national relevance about a decade ago with "Playmate of the Year" and can only be considered "punk" by the most liberal of definitions), TSOL (even older than the Vandals, having formed in 1979 rather than 1980, but at least they put out a record last month), Ignite (relative rookies, having formed in 1993) and Sederra, clearly the least known of the five but nonetheless formed from the remains of '90s band Longfellow.

"Best metal" is just as troubling as "best punk," with Atreyu, Avenged Sevenfold and Death By Stereo among the nominees. Avenged Sevenfold haven't had an album since October 2007; Atreyu, two months earlier. Death by Stereo? No full-length new material since 2005's Death for Life. Even if you do want to include the bigger names along with the more unknown ones, wouldn't you at least want to include ones that are at least somewhat current? Otherwise, why not just throw No Doubt or Social Distortion in there, too? Also, who considers any of those nominated bands, especially Death by Stereo, to be metal?

The categories themselves are also problematic. "Indie" is a pretty nebulous and ultimately meaningless term, not to mention outdated. "Alternative" is worse. So naturally, there's both a "best alternative" and "best indie" category, and to add to the meaningless of both, the same band--Venus Infers--are nominated for both. I think about music for a living, and I have a hard time coming up with any sort of worthwhile criteria to define either "indie" or "alternative." It doesn't tell anyone anything about how the music sounds, and seems like an odd way to distinguish things for an awards show. (Oh yeah, Venus Infers was also nominated for "Best Rock," still generic but at least an actual genre.)

Problems continue: Mickey Avalon, who has made a career of being from Hollywood, nominated for "best hip-hop"? Thrice nominated for "best alternative"? Not only have they achieved mainstream success, how is there sound so different from some of the bands nominated for "best punk" or "best metal"? Jack's Mannequin being nominated for "best pop," despite Andrew McMahon having relocated to LA?

I don't want to only rail on the OC Music Awards--all of their showcases I've attended have been enjoyable, featuring some top-notch local talent and drawing healthy crowds. Tuesday's show, with The New Limb, Daniel Morones and Yellow Red Sparks, was fantastic. It's a shame that more of them aren't on the nominee list--but several of them are, which is encouraging.

I also don't want to just complain without offering some possible solutions. Mainly, I think that, other than with the possible exception of "best new artist," it doesn't make much sense to award a band rather than a specific album or song. Otherwise, that's how you get situations like The Vandals being nominated for best punk despite not releasing anything in years. Because why not? The Vandals aren't going to stop being The Vandals, so what's going to stop them for being nominated every year of the awards, no matter how much or how little they do in a given year? And at that point, doesn't the whole thing seem kind of meaningless? And this year's Oscar goes to: The Bridge on the River Kwai!

Orange County obviously doesn't have the best reputation for arts, music and culture, and a nominee list like this isn't going to help. It looks unfocused and out-of-touch. I talked with Luke Allen, the head of the OC Music Awards, about these concerns, and he understood where I was coming from and described the awards as a "work in progress." He also said that part of the reason the list looks like it does, from his perspective, is that the scene "pretty well spread out from south to north county." These are all reasonable explanations. And it's not Allen's fault, he was going by what the academy voted for--which, given the admitted credibility of the academy members, is also puzzling. I really can't imagine who's going to look at this list and say, "OK, cool." To Allen's credit, he wrote, "
my hope that over the next couple years as scene awareness grows this will be reflected in the judging and we will see new names, to eventually be replaced with new names and so on."

Allen added that, "there were no restriction on relative success of a band that would exclude them from being nominated as long as at least a majority of the members live in Orange County." Which is fair, I'm not even sure if there should be restrictions based on relative success since that seems like an arbitrary move and something nearly impossible to decide (OK, you're this successful now--you're out!). And there is the thought, valid or not, that putting unknown bands against industry legends helps the little guys by comparison. (The cynical flipside interpretation is that putting big names on the nominee list is an easy way to get more mainstream attention to the awards.) But it should at least make sense, and to plenty of observers, many of these nominees really don't.

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