Over the years we've poked fun at the Detroit Music Awards. We've waxed philosophical, taken the awards to task, and even taken a few cheap shots. But there's a reason we keep going back and addressing the annual evening of accolades and commemoration: We still love music in this town and think it's deserving of some honest appreciation.
And while the sentiment has pretty much remained the same year after year (i.e., much grumbling that it's not truly representative, or worse), it only seemed fair to go into this year's ceremonies with an open mind.
Since they began in 1992, one thing that has been exceptional about the DMAs is the talent. This year's lineup was stacked with a praiseworthy collective of Detroit music, spanning from gospel to garage rock.
The night kicked off with a performance from gospel group God's Army (disclosure: I did not get there in time to see this act, but was told by many that they were spectacular).
Then came blues gal Alberta Adams, who, despite being wheelchair-bound, sang her ass off. She also received a Special Achievement Award.
Gritty rappers Raw Collection hilariously scared off at least two tables full of grayhairs. Jazz flutist Alexander Zonjic performed, and despite the inherent goofiness of, well, jazz flute, his stellar backup band stole the show. Hip-hop guy Trick Trick came across as amiable as hell, and the evening's closers, the Go, performed a crack set of three perfectly constructed rock songs (even if it was sort of lost on the dwindling crowd).
There's no denying Friday night's showcase was stellar, but the awards ceremony portion of the evening felt more like filler than the event's raison d'être. The presentation process was noticeably expedited this year, and based on the fair amount of repeat winners, it was probably better that way.
More than anything, this annual display of self-promotion and missed opportunities is heartbreaking.
Be it for a high school homecoming queen, the Oscars or an American president any time human beings are voting, there's going to be some controversy. But what plagues the Detroit Music Awards is the fact that a handful of artists win incredible numbers of awards year after year after year. For example, over the past four years, singer-songwriter Liz Larin has won 14 DMAs (ranging from Outstanding Pop/Rock Artist to Oustanding Folk Vocalist) and fellow performer Jill Jack no less than 10 since 2004. Several acts, including the Brothers Groove, Detroit Women and Thornetta Davis are mainstays in the winners circle.
To be fair, organizers have suggested that updating the voter registry has become a priority, but as evidenced by yet another year of repeat winners, it's clear that some new blood is needed in what is supposed to be a cross section of local musicians, managers, booking agents, media representatives, club management, sound technicians and other music industry professionals.
But if things are awry in DMA land, why does anyone bother? Because a lot of us love a red carpet and the chance to be a celebrity or a near celebrity even if we have to manufacture it ourselves. This is why awards ceremonies will always exist.
If organizers are going to put countless hours into producing a Detroit-specific music awards show, why not make it something to be proud of? Give the accolade some heft.
Here's another example of why the music fans get so jaded about these events:
The president of the Motor City Music Foundation, attorney Howard Hertz, allows bands he represents or manages to be nominated. This year, his client Jesse Palter, a lovely and talented young chanteuse, won three of the six jazz DMAs. That she's managed by Hertz isn't proof of anything, but it would be naive to think that it doesn't raise eyebrows.
That sort of suspicion doesn't bode well for anyone involved.
In regards to his client winning those DMAs this year, Hertz is unfazed.
"I don't see the conflict because the nominations are made by the voting committee. The only way to get around this would be for me to not be on the board. But I'm the president [of the Motor City Music Foundation]," Hertz says. And while he concedes that it might look bad, Hertz insists that his clients win these awards because they deserve them. "Naturally, when I'm choosing people to represent, I pick the best."
Truth is, if the Motor City Music Foundation wants to have an annual party celebrating the people they deem worthy they should absolutely do that. But to claim that the voting is a valid process is just plain insulting. The "voting" in its current state isn't working.
What seems to be the main problem is that the pool of voters lacks breadth. Another issue is that the majority of people who are on the voter registry don't even cast their vote. "Only one-third of the registered voters actually vote," Hertz says. There are an estimated 2,700 eligible voters.
In his annual address, Hertz made mention that the Detroit Music Awards and the Motor City Music Foundation help to keep Detroit's music scene on the global radar.
Let's be honest: Detroit is currently a blip on the worldwide music radar because of people like James Carter, Jack and Meg White, Eminem and Kid Rock. The D is a celebrated mecca of music because we're the town that gave birth to Motown, the MC5, techno, modern garage rock and white-boy rap. But, by and large, the Grammy Award winners, chart toppers, iconoclasts, groundbreakers and legends who are responsible for those distinctions have very little, if anything, to do with the Detroit Music Awards.
Maybe shaking up the process would get them involved? Maybe organizers could expand the voter pool?
"We don't go out and solicit voters," Hertz says. Which, sadly, is more than likely part of the problem. "I think if papers like the Metro Times would promote our event, it would help us reach a broader audience."
Maybe he's right, though for the record, the event was a featured blurb in last week's Night & Day spread. But we (me, anyway) would like to see some outreach made by the foundation. One gesture might be for organizers to put a moratorium on the nomination of board member-affiliated bands ... at least for a few years.
One icon of Detroit music did show up to give us a glimpse of what the awards could be: The burly and affectionate Bob Seger was at this year's DMAs. Generous with a handshake and a photo op, the classic rocker's presence and gratitude gave the night a much-needed touch of class as he accepted his award.
Friday night was an evening of great music something that's common occurrence in Detroit. But as far as honor, celebration and distinction go, even with Seger on hand, many of us left with an overwhelming feeling of "so what?" Again.
To see a comprehensive list of this year's winners, go to detroitmusicawards.com.
Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]