It is great that we have a celebration of our particular genre and its output but there are a number of interesting variables in the process.
Artists invariably nominate their own album, so the term 'nomination' should more rightly be called 'submission'. As such, the artist selects the category that they think best fits their style. It is a testament, I think, to the folk audience that a wide range of musical styles find their way in to this category: singer-songwriters, bluegrass, bush bands, Celtic combos, even rock, pop and light classical acts - probably on the reasoning that these are the people who will give their material the best listen.
In nominating an album the artist must undertake to, in the event of becoming a finalist, travel to the Auckland Folk Festival and perform. This would seem to be an odd filtering factor on the material, immediately excluding all those who cannot make this undertaking for whatever reason. No assistance is given by either RIANZ or the Auckland Folk Festival to the artists. Last year, for example, all three finalists (being 6 or 8 people) were from the South Island. Presumably every nominee had pro-forma travel plans in place until the finalists were announced.
Occasionally one might stumble across someone who admits to having been a judge (it's a different cohort every year) and get some feedback as to what they chose and why, but there is no formal feedback to artists from the judges or RIANZ. Your nominated album essentially goes into a black hole. We take it on good faith that RIANZ has made an appropriate personnel selection - they are not revealed. Judges don't know who the other judges are either and they are asked to keep their opinions to themselves until the job is done. Reasons for confidentiality are obvious and necessary but things we'd like to know after the award might include: how many entries there were, who they were, how they fared and some comments from the judges.
If one was to use the rarefied selection of the Folk Tui finalists over the years as a barometer of folk music in New Zealand, a truly eclectic picture might be gleaned. Occasionally, just occasionally, a truly awful album is chosen; times when, in my opinion and in the interests of the genre, an award was better not made.
All in all, the process is fair and the recognition is something that we can all be proud of. The small categories like folk, jazz and country do not have the sponsoring might of Vodafone behind them and, as Chris Caddick of RIANZ admitted to me when I raised some of these issues, they do this on a shoestring budget. But unless RIANZ gets some feedback from participants and observers, things won't improve on their own. We as a community need to own it and kick it around a bit more.
Disclaimer and conflict of interest: I've been a judge, nominee and finalist over the years and none of what I've written here is in any way a personal axe to grind about my own involvement, which has always been interesting and rewarding. My thanks goes to the Auckland Folk Festival people who have always treated the finalists like royalty!