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In case you've been living under a rock or planning a royal wedding and haven't heard, the Recording Academy announced the nominees for the 60th Grammy Awards this morning. The diverse (albeit male-heavy) slate included big looks for Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Bruno Mars, SZA, and more.
We spoke with Bill Freimuth, SVP of Awards for the Academy, to get the lowdown on what went down, what's changed, and how the hell Alessia Cara counts as a new artist.
To start off, this is the 60th Grammys. Is there anything being done in the telecast or otherwise to acknowledge that particular anniversary?
Well, sure. Quite a bit, actually. One, we're taking the whole show to New York City, which we haven't done for 15 years. I think we used to alternate [between holding the Grammys in New York and Los Angeles], way back, a bit more than we have of late. So it's kind of a big deal for us to be getting back to New York for a year. And I don't know if you saw on Friday, we just did a 60th anniversary special. It was on CBS last Friday, and I think that there will be certain acknowledgments of that milestone throughout the telecast, although it's a little early to say at this point.
This year, Frank Ocean and Drake both decided not to submit their albums for consideration. What did you and the Academy learn from that? Did you reach out to either of them, or their teams, after they announced those decisions?
No. In fact, it's actually our policy that we do not reach out to individual artists or labels or management companies about making submissions. It could easily be seen as bias on our part, were we to do that. And we work very diligently to avoid any bias or perception thereof. So no, we didn't do that. And of course, it's everybody's prerogative to choose to enter or not. We, of course, would prefer that everybody who made an album that may be Grammy-worthy should be in the competition. But, you know, we did get 22,049 other entries from which to choose for our voters, and I'm happy to say that I believe that the nominations announced this morning really do reflect a year of music here in the best possible light.
You introduced online voting this year. Why, and what effects did it have?
Well, why: it's something that we've been desirous of doing for many years now, and we've certainly heard from our membership that that's something that they would have liked to see happen. It took us quite a while to get there, because we felt that we would be a pretty big target for hackers, so we really wanted to do be extremely buttoned up on the security side. So we added online this year.
We wanted to be able to reach more of our voting members. We've got roughly 13,000 voting members of the Academy, and at any given time, even during balloting time, many of them are working professional musicians—they're on the road, their mail doesn't catch up to them that quickly. We also, of course, have many members living outside of the country, and the mail is not always as reliable in other parts of the world as it is here—and it's not always that reliable here. [Laughter]
We've been hearing anecdotally that people have been thrilled that they can use their phone to vote. They have that with them at all times, so when they're sitting on a tour bus or wherever, when they have a minute, they can start looking at that ballot and start to make their decisions.
Deloitte is our auditor. Deloitte does not share with us a lot of the very specific numbers, but they did say that there was an uptick in the percentage or participants in the voting process this year. That's an uptick from last year. Last year was the year of a presidential election, and they tell us that every year there's a presidential election, for some reason, we get a tremendous uptick in participation for our ballot. I guess people are just in the mood to vote. [laughter] So this seems to be working so far. Our reports from our voters are that they're really happy to have been able to do it that way.
There's been a lot of positive notice, including an article in the LA Times, about the diversity of nominees, and I'm curious if that was in any way intentional. And then there has been criticism about it being very male-dominated.
In terms of diversity, the way you worded the question was, "Was that on purpose?" I mean, our purpose every year is to announce nominations that reflect the will of our voters, who are the peers of the music makers. They are the music makers themselves. And this year, that group of people decided that the best music of the year was being made by a more diverse group than we've seen in at least the recent past in our nominations. And we're very happy about that, but it's not like it's been an overnight kind of thing.
There have been a number of initiatives that we've been working on for many years now, and they're not targeted to make the nominations look a certain way. But things have been put in place for us to help to reflect the will of the voters more accurately. I run the awards department here, and from that perspective, we've been simply doing our best to make sure that our rules and guidelines stay current, and that they reflect the needs of the music creators.
The online voting transition, that's a pretty obvious step that we took. But there have been a lot of less publicized, more nuanced changes that have taken place, that have ended up, cumulatively, making really huge differences too. We've decreased the number of categories in which voters may vote, so people have to be really choosy and really know that they are experts in those categories to vote in those categories. We've done things like clarifying and updating category descriptions.
We used to have a category called Rap/Sung Collaboration. They created that category roughly 10 years ago, where they saw a lot of rappers and singers who were collaborating. And what they see now is that there are artists who are both rapping and singing on the same track, so it doesn't necessarily have to be a collaboration. It could still be a collaboration, or it could be one person, or a band. But it's now called Rap/Sung Performance, and it reflects what's happening in that part of the music world right now.
In terms of our voting membership, I've gotta give credit to our Membership Relations team for all of the outreach they've been doing to ensure that our membership does have that kind of diversity. We don't really get into ethnic and racial diversity so much as diversity in genre, diversity in craft. And with programs like our Grammy U program, which gets artists and music makers involved at a very young age, and then once they graduate from school, we hope that they will become full members of the Academy. I think that efforts like those do end up lowering the median age of our voting membership.
And then also, our Marketing team, in their more public-facing duties, they've been increasing efforts to directly reach the voters, to encourage full participation. These "get out the vote" campaigns that they've been doing have been just really wonderful and really visible. So many of the artists and so many of our members are just living on their smart phones these days. And they'll see an Instagram thing reminding them to vote, or a tweet, or a Facebook posting; whatever way they choose to connect with us, we're there saying, "Hey! Your ballot's due tomorrow!" [laughter] So we think that that's working, and in particular, that's helping us get to the younger voters.
Depending on how you count, in the Album of the Year category, two to three of the nominees are rap albums. Rap albums don't have a great track record in winning the Album of the Year category, even though they're among the best-reviewed or most talked about or most influential projects of the year. Is that something that the Academy is trying to address?
From the staff and the board and the organizational standpoint, we are not making a statement with the nominations. It's the will of our voters that we are putting out there. And I would say that, sure, maybe there is X percentage of voters who use their votes to make more of a statement, but we certainly encourage all of our voters to simply vote based on what they feel is of the highest quality.
With the Best New Artist category: obviously, "new artist" is somewhat fungible, and the rules for the description of the categories leave a lot up to interpretation [the Academy's definition of the category reads: "An artist will be considered for Best New Artist if their eligibility year release/s achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness and notably impacted the musical landscape."] Alessia Cara was nominated as Best New Artist, even though she had a top 5 hit back in 2015. Why is she a "new artist" this year, as opposed to last year or the year before?
That's a great question, and it's one that might be raising some eyebrows. There's this very large room of people, about 70 people, who form what we call the Core Screening Committee. And one of the things they're charged with is to vet each entry in the Best New Artist category for eligibility.
When Alessia came up, there were some people who said, "Hey, she had a big hit earlier. Shouldn't that disqualify her as a 'new artist'?" The argument that really held sway, ultimately, was that yes, she did have a pretty big hit earlier, but she has continued on an upward trajectory and continued to break through to a much larger audience over the past year, the eligibility period. So they felt that, for that reason, she should remain eligible.
You have a lot of "technicals" surrounding Best New Artist: about how many releases you have, how many times you can enter in the category, that sort of thing. She met all of the technical specifications pretty easily, but then there's that more qualitative aspect of, "Is she beyond being what we could call 'new'?" That's what the discussion was regarding her. And this large room full of experts ended up voting and determining that she should stay eligible for this year.
Every year, you have the In Memoriam section of the telecast. And every year, people get upset that this or that person wasn't included. How are the people included in that segment determined, and are there any qualifications? Do they have to have won or been nominated for a Grammy, for example?
They have to be dead. [laughter]
Honestly, no. There are no specific parameters. They don't have to have won a Grammy, they don't have to have performed on the show, they don't have to...anything else. And you will see that there are industry people, label executives, publishers, songwriters, instrumentalists, as well as the more popular, more familiar stars, on that list.
It's an incredibly, incredibly difficult task to go through every year. We maintain a tally during the year of all the ones that we can keep track of, just through obituaries. But then, also, we do specific outreach to a couple of genre communities like classical and jazz, whose people might not get as much press, in terms of their passings. And we’ll have list of generally around 250 people or more who have passed in a year, that at least somebody feels should be recognized. We end up recognizing that entire list in the program that we hand out at the ceremony itself, at the telecast.
But we can really, in the amount of time that we can take for the telecast, [acknowledge] maybe ten percent of that. Maybe a little more, actually. I think we've gotten as many as 35, 40, maybe even 45 in there some years, when we squeezed. [laughter] And it's another committee process, where these lists are sent out to a group of people. I think everybody is allowed to pick 25 people or so, that they feel must be on the telecast. And so that takes it down to maybe 60, 75 names, and then the producers and others get involved and narrow it, finally, to the ones that we can put on there. And yeah, every year there's somebody who's not happy for being excluded, and we of course feel terrible about that, but there's just only so much real estate on the TV show.
Speaking of people who have passed recently, there are a lot of recently deceased people nominated this year like Leonard Cohen, Chris Cornell, Greg Allmann, and Glen Campbell. Not to be morbid, but does death help a person's chances?
You'd have to ask our voters that. [laughter]
So, no. It's easy to think that there's a sentimental vote for some of these people. But I have to say, I've listened to most, if not all, of the work by these recently deceased artists who have been nominated, and wow. I mean, I tell ya. Glen Campbell, for example, this is not just the fading work of an infirm and old artist who's trying to make a last buck for his family or something. It is a beautiful album. The Leonard Cohen [album], it's generally agreed, is among his best work of his lifetime, that he took to a different place that is darker and maybe a little richer than he'd been recently.
So it's easy to argue, "Oh yeah, sentimental vote. Of course they had to put Leonard Cohen in there." But I think there's more to it than that. I really think that people would not vote for these people had they not also really believed in the recordings.
Ed Sheeran got some nominations, but not in any of the major categories. Have you heard any buzz or pushback or questions about that, other than from me right now?
No, not really. He was certainly on a lot of people's predictions list, and we always like to surprise people, I guess. [laughter] But no, and please don't take that as any kind of cynical slight at Ed, who we love.
Every year, we hear, "Oh, this person should have been there." And my answer to that is, "Okay, well who shouldn't have been there?" And that's where it gets tough. We only put five slots for each of our categories. And they are precious, indeed, and hard to get. And that's what helps keep the Grammy Awards so prestigious.
One of the things that happened recently was albums that are on streaming services, but not otherwise for sale, are eligible. Are there any other rule changes like that being debated, in terms of allowing music that is released solely for free to be eligible, or anything like that?
Well, we're always discussing any number of aspects. We have a process—sorry, but it's another committee, called the Awards and Nominations Committee. They meet just once a year to go over all of the proposals that come in, to make changes. But every year, also, they create one or more subcommittees to study particular issues in the industry. That streaming issue was a perfect example. We actually spent, I think, two years analyzing that whole thing before it ended up getting to the point of voting on it and proposing it then to our national Board of Trustees, who passed it.
And we're continuing. Because things like distribution models in the industry have been in such a state of change and flux of late, it's something we've been keeping a very close eye on. It used to be that distribution was the high bar that you needed to get over to be eligible to get into the Grammy Awards. And now distribution's rather easy to meet, whether it's through Tunecore or just getting on the streaming services.
We try to keep our eyes on as many issues as possible. If enough has changed, then we need to change with that—hopefully at the crest of it, rather than behind it. And hopefully not too much in front of it, because if we change too much in the front of it, we could be wrong and it could backfire. I'm always reminded that we started a category for Best Disco Recording in 1981 [laughter] and eliminated that category in 1982 because it had pretty much passed by that point. So it's definitely a delicate balance.