Grammy Secrets Revealed!
A Grammy insider explains the reasons behind some of this year's WTF? nominations.
Why isn’t 2009’s freakiest breakout star nominated as a best new artist? Who decides whether or not an album is “Americana” or “Contemporary Folk?” How the heck are Hall & Oates nominated in the same category as MGMT? To help answer these, and other Grammy-nom related questions, we turned to Bill Freimuth, the Recording Academy’s Vice President of Awards.
The first question is an obvious one: Lady Gaga was the biggest new star of 2009. Why isn’t she one of the nominees for Best New Artist?
One of the rules for the Best New Artist category is that this is supposed to be the first year that an artist comes to prominence. Lady Gaga was nominated for a Grammy last year [“Just Dance,” Best Dance Recording], and that, as far as we’re concerned, signifies prominence. If you have a previous Grammy nomination, you’re not eligible to be a new artist anymore.
The nominees for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with vocals includes MGMT’s “Kids” and a live version of Hall & Oates’ “Sara Smile.” That song is thirty-five years old. That’s weird, right?
It might not be ideal, but that’s the way the voting broke down. I should say that for many of our fields, we have what we call “Nominations Review Committees.” Those consist of smaller groups of people who sit in a room and listen to, in most cases, the top 15 vote getters in certain categories — though not the ones you’re talking about — and then narrow it down to the top five nominees. One of the reasons for that is to give less well-known artists a little bit better chance because there might be a lot of voters who haven’t heard them. Maybe they’ll place in the top 15 or 20, but they wouldn’t necessarily get in the top five. But overall, we do try to ensure that the nominees are deserving and our voters are aware of things that merit recognition.
This is confusing.
[Laughs] It certainly can be! I understand why people watching the Grammys might feel like they don’t quite understand how it all works.
Like, how is MGMT nominated for best new artist if their album came out in 2007?
They achieved the nomination based on a single [“Kids”] that was released this year. Some of the rules about nominations are hard and fast and some of them are a little more subjective. Like we were talking about with Lady Gaga, “comes to prominence” is a subjective phrase. What constitutes prominence?
Something else that I find confusing is trying to figure out how certain artists end up in certain categories. Wilco are nominated in the Americana category. Who decided they were that kind of band and not, say, a “rock” band? Or why is Death Cab for Cutie considered Alternative?
Albums are entered into certain categories by either their labels or members of the Academy. When the labels make entries, they all have different philosophies and strategies about how to go about it. What a label will do, if they’re not sure what category it should go in, is go ahead and enter it in multiple categories, which red-flags it for us because an album can only be entered into one category. But we’re not just drawing these lines in thin air. We have 22 genre-based screening committees that involve about 300 people who actually come to L.A. and screen everything. So let’s say you’re a rock expert on a screening committee, you would come to the screening committee meeting, and help draw the line every year between pop and rock. Those lines sort of shift every year.
Are all the Grammy voters allowed to vote in every category? Are the same people voting on both Regional Mexican music and Urban Alternative?
Our 109 categories are separated into 29 fields. On the first ballot, any given voter is allowed to vote in nine fields plus the general field. On the second ballot, they’re allowed to vote in up to eight fields, plus the general field.
So then it could happen that people are voting on both the Regional Mexican and Urban Alternative categories? I’m sure there are people who are experts in both, but it seems weird.
It could be, yes. But we think the system works. Just to be clear, we want to make sure that the Grammy Awards are relevant. So the people who are on the committees that draw the lines are people that we trust implicitly.
Who gets to be on those committees?
They all have to be voting members of the Academy. There’s actually a formal process by which we choose them. They are nominated to us, and then they all have to be ratified by our national board of trustees. Then the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, the President of the Academy, and myself sit in a room and look at all the people that have been ratified and try to create the best mixes of geography and ethnicity and gender and a subgenre knowledge.It’s a constantly evolving thing.
Have you ever considered opening up a category to fan voting?
No. That would be antithetical to what we’re all about. These are peer awards. That’s what we’ve hung our hat on all these years and that’s why I think the artists, from what we gather, seem to care more about a Grammy award than about a fan-based award or popular-based award or chart-based award because this is their own people saying “You’re the best.”
Those are all the questions I have for now.Thanks!
Thank you! I hope I made things somewhat less confusing.