Written by Rob Kenner (@boomshots)
This coming Sunday, January 26, the biggest stars in the music biz and a cavalcade of industry heads will get all dressed up and head to L.A.’s Staples Center for the Grammy Awards, a.k.a. “Music’s Biggest Night.” Established in 1958, and originally named for the gramophone—a recording and playback device invented by Thomas Edison in the 19th century—the ceremony is still going strong in the era of Soundcloud and Spotify. More than 28 million viewers tuned in to watch last year’s 55th Grammy Awards and there were over 15 million social media interactions about the Grammys that night alone—an increase of over 500 percent increase from the 2011 awards (but not as many as 2012, the year Whitney Houston died).
Yet while lots of people watch the Grammys, nobody seems to agree with them. The music industry’s highest honor—intended to recognize "artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position”—has become just another TV awards show, focused on big-name performances calculated to maximize Nielsen ratings and revenue. Of this year’s 82 categories, most are not televised—because the vast majority of TV viewers would not know or care about them. (Best Surround Sound Album, anyone?) And all too often the awards end up going to the wrong people and projects. Why does this happen? Because of people like me. My name is Rob Kenner and I have a confession to make. I’m a voting member of the Recording Academy.
All too often the awards end up going to the wrong people and projects. Why does this happen? Because of people like me. My name is Rob Kenner and I’m a voting member of the Recording Academy.
Bob Marley, to pick one egregious example, never won a Grammy during his lifetime. To make matters worse, last year’s Grammy Awards included a Bob Marley tribute that consisted of one Bruno Mars song (presumably so Bruno Mars would take part in the tribute), one song by The Police (presumably so Sting would take part), and one song by, yes, Bob Marley—as performed by Rihanna, Ziggy and Damian Marley (who presumably took part out of actual respect for Bob). TV performance politics are one thing, but the larger issue is that the actual Grammy process is fatally flawed. I know because I have played a small part in it for the past several years. (And maybe after the Recording Academy reads this I won’t anymore.) So go ahead—you can hate me now.
Six years ago I was contacted by a representative of the Grammys to join the screening committee for the Best Reggae Album category. As you can imagine I was flattered to be asked, and paid my own way to fly off to Grammy HQ in Santa Monica for the annual screening committee meeting. There I joined a group of seven or eight other journalists, radio DJs, label execs, and musicians who gathered in a room with a big stack of CDs. While enjoying a nice lunch of pesto pasta and fresh-baked cookies, we ran through every single album that had been submitted—usually by record labels, but sometimes by members of the Recording Academy. (In a category like Reggae, where much of the music is produced by smaller independent labels who may not be familiar with the Grammy entry process, the best records are sometimes not even submitted.)
Members of that committee were not supposed to concern ourselves with quality—our job was to determine whether each album belonged in the Reggae category. The rules stated that 51% of the album’s tracks had to consist of reggae music (a genre that includes such disparate styles as roots reggae, ska, dub, and dancehall). Some albums were easy to categorize while others posed more of a challenge. Where, for instance, was the line between dancehall and electronica or rap or alternative?
Along with the official guidelines, I soon learned another unwritten rule during private conversations with other committee members: be careful about green-lighting an album by someone who was really famous if you don’t want to see that album win a Grammy. Because famous people tend to get more votes from clueless Academy members, regardless of the quality of their work. This is especially true in specialized categories like reggae and, to a lesser extent, hip-hop, where many voting members of the Recording Academy (who tend to skew older than the demographic for rap music) may not be well acquainted with the best releases in any given year. That's the reason why famous names like Marley, Toots, and Sly & Robbie stand a much better chance of winning in the reggae category than, say, Beres Hammond.
Although I’d been writing about reggae music for 15 years or so when the Grammys first reached out, I was not a member of the Recording Academy at the time. But I soon learned that I could be. All you need is six or more credits on official music releases—these credits can include vocalists, conductors, songwriters, composers, engineers, producers, instrumentalists, arrangers, art directors, album notes writers, narrators, and music video artists or technicians. Since I’d written many liner notes over the years I qualified. So I paid my membership fee and became a proud voting member. That’s when I came to truly grasp why the Grammys tend to fail. Part of the problem has to do with the process by which nominees are selected, and who gets to vote for them. And part of it has to do with a secret committee that tweaks the nominations in categories that will be televised—but more on that later.
I soon learned another unwritten rule in private conversations with other committee members: be careful about green-lighting an album by someone who was really famous if you don’t want to see that album win a Grammy.
Here’s how the process works: Voting members review lists of all the eligible recordings in each category (the ones generated by screening committees like mine). Members are supposed to vote only in their fields of expertise—and in a maximum of 9 out of the 31 fields on the ballot. In addition, everyone gets to vote for Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist. A few categories are reserved for special nominating committees, but frankly—not enough. I weighed in on the nominees for best pop album, even though I don't pay as much attention to pop music as other genres. Hey, I told myself, pop is for people who don't pay much attention anyway. In the final voting process, members are allowed to vote in even more categories —up to 20, plus the 4 general categories. Bottom line: the vast majority of the nominations are chosen by people who have little real expertise in a given field. I refrained from voting in heavy metal and classical because I know very little about those genres. But I could have if I wanted to, and that strikes me as a problem.
This year there’s been a lot of chatter around whether Macklemore and Ryan Lewis deserve a Grammy for Best Rap Album. Because of their tremendous commercial success and media exposure there’s a good chance they will win, despite the fact that most hip-hop aficionados would prefer to see the award go to pretty much anybody else—be it Kanye West, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, or Drake. This sort of thing has been an issue ever since 1989, when the Best Rap Performance category was first added. The award that year went to “Parents Just Don’t Understand” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince—who led a boycott of the ceremonies because the rap category was not televised. Even more outrageous was the fact that classic 1989 releases by BDP, EPMD, and Big Daddy Kane were not even nominated.
This year I've resigned myself to the fact that Beres Hammond's One Love, One Life stands little chance of winning the Best Reggae Album Grammy that it so richly deserves. Why? Because it's up against releases from household names like Ziggy Marley and Snoop Lion. When the winners are announced, we'll hear the usual chorus of criticism from knowledgeable listeners, which the Academy will ignore, and voting members like myself will greet with a collective #KanyeShrug.
How can this be fixed? Back in the mid 1990s, the Recording Academy quietly established the “nominations review committee.” After the voting members decide on their nominees, this hand-picked group, whose membership is not publicly disclosed, goes over the nominations for the top four categories plus Country, R&B, Latin, Gospel, Jazz, Classical, and Music Video categories. If anything seems "off" they make the necessary adjustments and keep it moving. Critics charge that their choices are driven by TV ratings concerns. But maybe the secret committees aren’t such a bad thing after all. I’m certain that lots of people who know as much or more about, say, classical music or heavy metal than I do are not aware that they can become voting members themselves. Until they do, I say bring on the secret committees. They can’t do much worse.
Rob Kenner has been in the game for years—it made him an animal. He is currently a Senior Editor at Complex and was previously a founding editor of VIBE. You can read his site Boomshots.com and follow him on Twitter and Google Plus.