Monday, February 14, 2011

Explainer: How The Grammys Are Really Decided

 The Recording Academy calls the shots, but who are they and how do they do it?

Multi-talented rapper and musician B.O.B. is nominated for five Grammy Awards (Credit: Diamond/
Every year when Grammy nominations are announced and later when the winners are eventually presented with their awards, a swarm of conspiracy theories and backlash is sure to follow. You’ve sat in your living room during the ceremony and heard the cries of “they’re just trying to help that album sell,” or “they paid for that award.” I’ve even had my own theories about the awards show process. My “brown baiting” idea has seemed validated by the fact that Eminem – I know he’s not “brown” but hey, he’s a rapper – has been the cornerstone of the Grammy advertising campaign this year. I still doubt he wins the award for Album of the Year; it’s more likely we’ll be duped again. After my last article about the Grammys, I decided to take a closer look at the nomination and voting process to see exactly how the whole thing worked.
First, members of the Recording Academy and record labels send music to the committee to be considered for nomination; there can be more than 15,000 entries in a given year. Who is this mysterious Recording Academy you ask? The Recording Academy is a community of musicians that vote on the nominations and winners of Grammys. The Grammys prides itself on the fact that winners are voted on by their peers. Joining the Recording Academy isn't too difficult. An artist can apply in their category of expertise: vocalist, producer, engineer, etc, by filling out an application form and paying $100 annual dues. So, if the artists don't pay the money, their voices won't be heard. While $100 isn't a lot of money for Diddy, it may be too hefty a price tag for the struggling artists out there.  He or she also has to have contributed to six retail tracks released via traditional distribution or 12 digitally released tracks. 


Once the entries are received, over 150 experts in each field – Jazz, R&B, Country, Hip-Hop, etc. – determine if these submissions are eligible based on the way they are sold and marketed and if they are released within the appropriate timeline. These experts – whose names aren’t revealed due to fear of bribery – then group the releases in their appropriate categories. So, if you wonder who determines the difference between “album of the year” and “song of the year,” it’s these guys. All of this accepted music is sent out to the academy so nominations can take place.
There are also “Craft Committees” that appear to be the more meticulously assembled committees. These voters determine nominees for more technical fields like production or album notes. Wait a minute… ALBUM NOTES?!?!? Yes, even liner notes have their moment to shine.
Once the Academy votes on the entries for the first round of nominees, the list is condensed to create the nominations you see during the big announcements.
Once that list is sent out, each member of the Academy is allowed to vote in the big four general categories: Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best New Artist, as well as up to eight other categories. They are encouraged to vote in the category most closely related to their expertise. The votes are then sent to a third-party firm to tally the votes. Nobody knows who wins until the envelope is opened and the award recipient is announced.
Ostensibly the process seems to work like a well-oiled machine and, while it’s much more intricate and thorough than I originally thought, there are some escalating challenges that make the process more prone to scrutiny.
The musical landscape is so large that it seems impossible for the Grammy votes to be an all-encompassing snapshot of the scene. Thousands of entries come in every year for the first round of nominations and, while the Grammy committee stresses that precedence isn’t given to entries based on popularity, it seems impossible for every entry to be heard. The Eminems and Lady Gagas will get more consideration by default as certain works just won’t get heard due to time constraints and a general lack of interest in hearing every album that’s been released in a calendar year.
Furthermore, in 2011, everybody is a musician. Full bands are formed every minute thanks to their ability to record studio-quality songs in their living rooms. The Independent scene is larger thanks to social media and the Internet, meaning more artists can obtain fame and critical acclaim without being attached to entities recognized by the Grammys. So, while they’re contributing music, they may not necessarily be interested in being involved with the voting and nomination process.
“What’s difficult is when we do not have the participation of all those artists, be it indie or commercial artists, as it is their participation that keeps our Awards relevant and current,” Michele Caplinger, Senior Executive Director for The Recording Academy’s Atlanta, Ga., chapter, told TheLoop21.
Another thing to think about is that not all of the best music made in a given year will be eligible for awards. This is especially true for Hip-Hop where, because major label releases are fewer due to struggling sales, the mixtape has become a source of some of the genre’s best music. Projects like J Cole’s Friday Night Lights and Big K.R.I.T.’s Krit Wuz Here were arguably good enough to be released as albums last year, but they don’t fit into the Grammys’ criteria for consideration.
The Grammy process isn’t nearly as contrived or fixed as the general public may believe, but it has a way to go to adapt to the ever-changing music industry. For now, it’s what we have. The nominations and voting won’t please everybody, but the controversy is what keeps people so transfixed by the whole ordeal.
-David Dennis

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