Ever wonder what you receive for winning a New Mexico Music Award?
“A nice little acrylic award that’s in a trapezoid shape with your name and a logo on it,” event producer Jose Ponce tells SFR.
Of course, there’s much more to the honor than a geometric figurine made of synthetic resins and textile fabrics. There’s the recognition from one’s peers, the prestige, the validation and the party at Sandia Casino.
“The point,” according to Ponce, “is to say music is valid and important—no less valid than any other job in the community—and musicians should be proud of themselves. We have brilliant, brilliant artists here, and precious few people who recognize it.”
Now in its 26th year, the NMMA recognizes music recorded and produced primarily in New Mexico. The process begins with soliciting paid submissions from the public, followed by preliminary local adjudication, then a final round of judging by a panel of (top-secret) national and international music industry professionals.
“The first year, we had 68 entries spread over about 20 categories. This year, we had 475 entries spread over 41 categories,” Ponce says. “It has grown in stature amongst musicians in the state. We’ve had a number of people who’ve been part of our competition as artists and have gone on to do other things—they’ve won Grammies; they’ve gone on to international acclaim.”
Bands and artists fitting this description include New Mexico natives The Shins and Zach Condon of Beirut.
Besides genre categories for mainstream rock, hip-hop, jazz, etc., Ponce considers the night’s biggest award to be “Best Song,” which he says is “our biggest category by far” in terms of submissions.
Like the awards ceremony itself, the “Best Song” category brings together musicians of different styles and different ages from all over the state. This year’s finalists include Santa Feans Faith Amour and Todd Eric Lovato, as well as hONEyhoUSe, A Michael Martinez and Cali Shaw (pictured above).
The community-building aspect of the NMMA extends beyond the gathering of musicians for the awards banquet. During the rest of the year, the organization stays busy with educational outreach programs and the upkeep of the Eric Larson Music Endowment, which provides annual scholarship money to a University of New Mexico student pursuing music studies.
“Eric was one of the co-founders. He passed away in 2005,” Ponce explains. “If we don’t encourage our students to play music, in school or out of school, then they just give up and do something else.”
After Larson passed away, there was some doubt about whether the two-decade-old awards ceremony would continue, due to what Ponce terms its potential “tax liability.” He and his wife Kathleen ultimately stepped in to save the for-profit (but non-profiting) organization and have been running it for almost 10 years.
Ponce says, “People complain about paying for the entry or to go to the ceremony, but we don’t make any money off this—no profit. It was never about that.”
Entry fees and admission tickets compose the organization’s annual budget, which goes entirely toward event logistics and rentals, education outreach, the Larson Endowment and the awards themselves (which are actually quite expensive and attractive).
Though most feedback the NMMA receives is positive, Ponce mentions a few other complaints of the sort inherent to a subjective judging competition: “People will say, ‘My song is better than the winner,’ and I say, ‘Might be, but it just came down to the opinions of the national judges.’”
And on one memorable occasion, he recalls, “I had people complain that no one from their studio had ever won. I had to point out that no one from their studio had ever entered.”
Even when one does enter, the average chance of winning an award in any given category is less than 10 percent. However, this leads to a sort of “survival of the fittest” mentality that, in Ponce’s opinion, helps push musicians in new directions.
“The whole point of the award is that competition makes us better,” he concludes.
The acrylic trapezoids are just a bonus.