Following Deborah Dugan’s explosive revelations about the Grammys, I decided to release the longer version of an op-ed I wrote for the Dallas Morning News. The currently suspended Recording Academy CEO took the position to make changes, but Dugan met resistance from the entrenched interests. She exposed what I wrote here as true: the system is “rigged” to serve business interests and it reinforces racial and gender disparities.
Awards season is upon us, and the world’s most esteemed musicians will soon walk the red carpet at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards on January 26th. Over the past three years, activists have shined a bright light on the Grammy Awards’ exclusionary practices. This bright light revealed the racial and gender inequities in both the show and the nomination and voting processes.
The attention brought by these activists resulted in last year’s major reforms to both the voting process and the show. However, overlooked in this process is the role of major record labels in producing inequities. These large corporations play an immense role in what music reaches the public, and what they push intersects with both race and gender. Record labels feed a largely white male consuming public their own stereotypes of white women and people of color, which shapes the winners of the Grammy’s.
In order to be nominated for a Grammy, musicians benefit from signing to a major record label or one of their affiliates. The number of “independent” artists who win Grammy’s in the big four categories can be counted on one hand. The most recent independent artist to win was Chance the Rapper in 2017, who ushered in a new era for streaming-only artists. But even Chance the Rapper had big dollar support behind him from Apple. While labels claim they give artists autonomy, corporate logic pervades production from the moment labels decide who to sign to decisions made about music videos. Therefore, the artists nominated and winning these awards produce music under the corporate logic of record labels.
The problem is that corporations place profit over people. Labels care about the bottom-line and could care less about representations of people of color and white women. They produce content they think will sell to the largest group of consumers. But people and consumers are not the same thing. Music consumers have expendable income, while listeners may be broke as I demonstrate in the essay “Digital Subscriptions.” What group of consumers has the most disposable income to spend in the United States? White men.
The logic of white capitalist patriarchy pervades everything about popular music. For instance, the Recording Academy former president Neil Portnow’s recently commented that women need to “step up,” which assumes there is a problem with women artists, not the system that ignores their contributions. Following these remarks, there was an outcry that led to better incorporation of women on the 2019 Grammy’s award show. However, decision makers in the recording industry hold these patriarchal beliefs and perpetuate the subjugation and disregard for women artists. As evidenced by #TimesUp, the music industry’s exposing of sexual harassment and assault in the music industry, parallel to the better-known #MeToo. And radio consultant Keith Hill who claimed that in order to make money in country radio, DJs needed to quit playing women artists. Not to mention the sexual exploitation of women in music videos across genres.
Several authors have written about how music transformed after Billboard changed the way it calculates album sales. Billboard went from a survey of record store clerks to a point-of-sale chart system called SoundScan in 1991. In the pre-SoundScan system, labels gave record store clerks swag in exchange for inflated data about a specific artist. After SoundScan, fudging the numbers became more difficult. This changed how record executives thought about music consumers. For instance, it turned out that the biggest consumers of hip hop music in the early 1990s were white teenage males living in the suburbs. According to Craig Watkins, rap music changed to target these consumers, which “represented a strange form of cultural tourism for many young whites.” The number of consumers does not equal the number of listeners because consumption requires money. This holds true in the streaming era as labels place more value on subscription streams over ad-supported streams. Record labels only care about consumers as opposed to listeners or enthusiasts. This has a direct effect on the music produced, consumed, and eligible for a Grammy.
In the 25th anniversary edition of Race Matters, Dr. Cornel West states these corporations “in the recording, video, radio, and live performance industries have too often dumbed down the music for pecuniary gain, eliminated most soulful group performers for big-name celebrities-to-be, and unleashed vicious stereotypes of women, men, LGBTQ people, and others in the name of ‘keeping it real.’ This ugly assault on the Black musical tradition is a form of neoliberal spiritual warfare, a market-driven attack on the very souls of Black Folk.” (p.xxii).
The logic of the market perpetuates the exclusion of people of color and white women. The Record Academy changed its voting system in 2017 and 2018 for the 2018 and 2019 Grammy Awards (respectively). These changes added more nominees to the big four categories and added 900 new younger and more diverse voters. However, inequities persist. No matter the reforms developed by The Recording Academy, they will continue to be inadequate as long as the market drives music production.
Until musicians are given autonomy and can make music for music’s sake, the corporations who run the industry, from labels to streaming services, will perpetuate racial and gender stereotypes that degrade women and oppress people of color.
After 3 hours of music and a much needed public service announcement on domestic violence, the Recording Academy decided to end the show with a selfish lobbying effort to create tougher copyright laws. By starting the Creators’ Alliance (dubbed #GrammyAlliance for Twitter), the Recording Academy placed itself strongly on the side of major record labels against the recording artists who constitute the bulk of the Recording Academy members. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
As more data is released from 2014, we can see that major record labels celebrated a year of indisputable growth. Yet, they continue to include language that makes it sound as if the industry shrank.
“While the U.S. music industry suffered through its worst sales year since the advent of SoundScan (now Nielsen Music) in 1991, streaming was so strong last year that the industry nevertheless saw growth — yes, growth — in 2014, when new metrics to measure music revenue are taken into consideration.” Continue reading
In a moment of clarity, Billboard admits that album sales don’t tell the whole story of record label revenues. According to Billboard, “there’s more to the story. Recorded music looks better when streaming gains are taken into account.” As I’ve been arguing for a while, record labels earn revenue from a number of sources well beyond album sales. So the recent decline of albums and tracks is rather irrelevant when considering industry profits.
More than a decade after the launch of the iTunes Music Store, parts of the recording industry are finally changing the way they calculate sales. Billboard changed the metrics it uses to calculate the Billboard 200. Rather than calculating only album sales, Billboard 200 will now use “track-equivalent albums” and “track-equivalent streams.” This is the biggest change in the way that Billboard calculates this chart since the implementation of SoundScan in 1991, and it already appears to be every bit as monumental. Continue reading