When the second annual Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award was handed over last week, one of a 10-strong short list of Scots artists including indie pop group Django Django, former Blue Nile frontman Paul Buchanan and esteemed young folk group Lau might have been expected to win. Yet instead the prize went to RM Hubbert, a skilful and expressive guitarist whose second album on Glasgow's cult independent label Chemikal Underground label features guest appearances from Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat and members of Franz Ferdinand.
That Hubby's Thirteen Lost & Found should triumph from a strong short list of 10 featuring such disparate and resoundingly high-quality artists as politically conscious folk singer Karine Polwart, the post-rock and krautrock influenced The Twilight Sad and Human Don't Be Angry (the instrumental alter-ego of Moffat's former Arab Strap partner Malcolm Middleton) solidifies the fact that Scotland's music scene is gaining a sense of unified identity and purpose, even as the number of internationally recognised independent artists emerging from the country grows.
For many years now, Scots musicians have found their wider career prospects enhanced by moving to London, a route previously taken by the likes of Primal Scream, KT Tunstall and Django Django themselves. It's not a unique malaise, with every provincial English band formed outside the capital doubtless telling a similar story, but an increasing sense has emerged that a combination of Scotland's resurgent sense of post-devolution identity and the fragmented, non-geographic nature of the web-based industry is incubating a strong Scottish scene based around something more resilient than a buzz about one or two new bands.
The establishment of the SAY Award creates a banner around which the industry north of the border can gather and grow, and its very existence is symptomatic of the resurgent cultural confidence in a Scotland poised on the brink of both an independence referendum and Glasgow's Commonwealth Games in 2014. After his win, Hubbert will be £20,000 better off: that's the same amount of prize money as a Mercury winner receives and a significant statement of intent from the organisers. Yet there may be those who argue as to whether Scotland needs a publically funded (by Creative Scotland, the Scots equivalent of the Arts Council) music prize at all, particularly when each of the 20 albums on the long list was notionally eligible for both the Mercurys and the Brits as well (the long-listed Emeli Sandé is already a multiple Brit winner).
“Some people will take the view the money could be better spent elsewhere,” says the Scottish Music Industry Association's Stewart Henderson, director of the SAY Award, “but I don't subscribe to that. It seems to me if we're to try and establish a significant, credible arts prize for music, one way to invest that with a certain gravitas is to make sure the prize fund can make a difference.” Yet he warns it's “not a leg-up or a business development grant. This prize is to reward excellence, it's a celebration of the very best music an artist can make.”
“It's a massive deal,” says the Edinburgh-formed Django Django's Dave Maclean of the award. “It's a great way to get Scotland known internationally for what great music is coming out, because the music industry's very London-centric and it's hard to get recognition wherever else in the country you are. You can draw a line between Glasgow, Chicago and Detroit for forward-thinking electronic music, which I think has a lot to do with a mix of the rich industrial heritage and the Art School's creative edge. When those things come together it's the perfect breeding ground for music and ideas.”
Aidan Moffat, the SAY Award's winner last year for the gorgeous Everything's Getting Older alongside Bill Wells, reflects on the sense of “pride but not boastfulness” in the Scottish character which has until recently made an industry award seem an unlikely prospect. “There's certainly been a stronger sense of identity since the SNP won in the Scottish Parliament,” he says, his words the reverse of the English experience. “I think that generally they just understand the arts as an export, and not only music. There's definitely a feeling that things are happening.”
“I've been involved with music since the mid-Nineties,” says Henderson, a former member of the (ironically Mercury-nominated) Delgados and one of the owners of Chemikal Underground, “and I really do feel there's a much more open, collaborative and proactive attitude towards making things happen culturally in Scotland than I can ever remember. Is there a degree of political serendipity at work behind that? Most certainly, I don't think there's any doubt. Does it translate as political cynicism? I'm not so sure. You just have to be grateful for the circumstances you find yourself in.”
Henderson speaks with excitement about the possibility for 2014's award, already a who's who of Scotland's finest contemporary bands including Biffy Clyro, Frightened Rabbit, Primal Scream, Boards of Canada, Camera Obscura, Chvrches, Mogwai and (possibly) Franz Ferdinand, yet he points out that publicising individual groups isn't as important as consolidating the previously disparate Scottish industry. “It's an engine to get people together to realise just how strong we are as a nation at creating great music,” he says. “There's nothing wrong with going on about that for six weeks a year.”