While the term Grammy is derived from “gramophone,” the first device to record and playback music, this year’s Grammy Award Show will be largely about profit, not music. Heralded in the past as a moment when recording artists come together and vote for the best music of the year, the choices they are given is highly structured by the Grammy Nominating Committee and major record labels. And while voting members still have ultimate say in nomination and voting, the system propels the biggest pop names to the top the same way that our political process favors big name politicos (read “serious candidates”). Because there are so many voters, with over 20,000 members, the Recording Academy‘s Voting Members, eligible only to musicians who have “commercially” released music, favors widely popular major label music over obscure indie music.
The word commercially is placed in scare quotes specifically because this is an odd way to rank music. A musician who rejects the commercialization of their music is therefore unqualified. This reinforces the ideology that music is primarily a commodity. With the Internet, musicians could easily distribute their music to all voters ahead of the nomination process without any commercial motive. Under the current system, if your music isn’t selling, then it might as well not be music.
While voters can, and do, nominate lesser-known musicians, their decreased visibility dilutes their nomination. Just like in American politics, these nominations are not taken seriously. Voters laughed at Dennis Kucinich, but embraced John Kerry. Grammy voters would ignore a nomination of Jah-I-Witness while voting for Iggy Azalea. But this is what happens when we link quality to quantity. Even some of the biggest names in the history of popular music never won a Grammy. Yes, this system is geared more towards quality than say the American Music Awards, but it is still very different from truly naming Album of the Year.
There are exceptions to the rule. In 2008, Herbie Hancock took home Album of the Year for “River: The Joni Letters.” But there are several things to note. First, Hancock is a legend. Second, the album consists of songs written by Joni Mitchell – a musical titan in her own right. Third, the album featured singers spanning from Norah Jones to Tina Turner. Another exception to this rule was the shocking win by Esperanza Spalding in 2011 for Best New Artist. The phenomenal bass player and singer made history by being the first jazz artist to win the category. Both wins could probably be credited to the appreciation that voters have for other incredible musicians, but these are exceptions to the rule proving the rule itself.
A great recent article in the Washington Post written by Chris Richards puts it this way:
The Grammys, the Oscars and other sparkly Sunday night telecasts where big stars compete for little trophies continue to give our culture industries an opportunity to show the rest of the world how they see themselves.
In the case of the Grammys, the recording industry is able to define itself. Major labels demonstrate what music is. This is done through both the awards and performances. You will only see performances by recording artists on major record labels. If these musicians are not up for an award this year, it is likely that they just had an album drop and could be up for a Grammy next year. Think of it as the world’s largest music advertisement. While Billboard lists the Grammys as the second largest exposure event to the Super Bowl, the trade magazine actually points out that the Grammys have the biggest impact on music sales (Katy Perry stands to benefit from both).
As we watch another year of recording artists accepting awards voted for by members of the Recording Academy, keep in mind that this is as arbitrary as MTV’s TRL.