10 Things To Do When Judging Audio Works
Recently I was invited by the HearSay Festival to be one of the judges for their new audio prize, alongside some colleagues I very much admire. The experience exposed me to a wide variety of tracks running the gamut of genres and styles. It was also hard work as it required time, commitment and attention, as well as developing a personal strategy to approach the tracks in a methodical way that would be as fair as possible.
Our field being relatively small, I know that some of you have been in the judging shoes in the past and some others may be in future, so I thought it might be handy to share some of the practical tips I used to tackle this particular task.
While I don’t claim to be a judging expert by any means, I hope you will find these insights useful. It may also be interesting to read this from the perspective of the entrant which, let’s face it, as artists we all are most of the time!
1) Make a list. It doesn’t matter whether you are judging 40 tracks, 10 or three. If there is a prize at stake and people have been working hard for it, so should you. Start by writing things down to make sure you’re not missing out on any detail. Doesn’t have to be anything fancy: I just like to draft up a plain 3-column in a Word file, where I write down the track number (entries are usually presented anonymously to the judging panel), title and any comments that will pop into my head as I listen. Oh, about that:
2) LISTEN. Not ‘check twitter and listen’, ‘plan dinner and listen’ or ‘type an SMS and listen’. Give each track your undivided attention. If you are busy, if you’re in a hurry, if there’s people around, then the time isn’t right. Don’t be tempted to squeeze it in: wake up an hour earlier if you have to. You have a responsibility to do this right.
3) Stagger the load. One way to do this might be to line up only a maximum number of tracks for listening over a certain number of days (for example, 3 tracks every other day for 12 entries if you’d like to do that over one week). Decide according to your schedule and listening habits: choose something realistic that will allow the stories to sit with you and percolate, without you feeling overwhelmed.
4) Be aware. Story, production, recording skills: what is it you are enjoying (or not)? What’s striking, what could be better? Is the story speaking to you, or is it the telling of it? In short, be aware and consider everything when giving your precious vote. This is not just being thorough, it will also stand you in good stead when, down the line, you may be asked to expand on the reasons behind your vote. Once the festival comes around, you may eventually get to know some of the mystery composers who submitted: wouldn’t it be nice to connect over what you enjoyed in their work?
5) Be fair, be consistent: of course gut instinct and personal sensibility are important, and are what makes each judge point of view interesting, different and worth listening to, but at the same time make sure to be consistent in your standards. Is there anything you are subconsciously marking down due to personal taste? Come on now. If the topic doesn’t appeal it to you but the production is top-notch and the story hits home, you should reward it regardless. It won’t always be easy, but try to be consistently mindful (and rational!) about what draws you or repels you.
6) Shortlist. Once you have listened to all the tracks, go back to your document and highlight the titles of the tracks you felt were the best. Once this first part is done, and provided you have the time, go back for a second listen through the highlighted entries and further mark (underline track titles, for example) to make your choices stand out.
7) Spread out the goodness – wherever possible. Some competitions will allow you to nominate the same track multiple times for different categories. If there are multiple tracks you deem as worthy as each other, don’t waste this opportunity and reward as many as you can, rather than the same one over and over. Unless that one track either absolutely blew your mind, or is the only decent one of the bunch!
8) Go away. Hey, come back! I didn’t mean a holiday break, you’ve got work to do. So now you’ve listened to all of the tracks and your shortlist is ready to go. Itching to send it through? Not yet. Step back for a while, even if just for one day. Is there a track you can’t you stop thinking about? Did you include it? If not, it’s probably worth reconsidering.
9) Apples against pears? There are a few different schools of thought on this, but in my view competitive judging should ideally pitch like against like. If this isn’t the case, go back and re-read the original call for works to set a suitable overarching standard for your own judging self.
10) Enjoy! It’s a privilege to be able to come into contact with brand new tracks and ideas, reward hard work and promote it to the festival audience. As an added bonus, you are bound to come away from the experience inspired, and rearing to go on your own work.
Have you been called upon to judge a sound prize before? Any go-to techniques and tips you’d like to share?