Early on Friday, the Recording Academy announced its nominees for the 2018 Grammys. Response from grateful artists ranged from tweets to tears on live television. And the media noticed an increase in representation of women amongst the nominees, especially in the big “general field” categories—this after women made up fewer than 10% of nominees between 2012 and 2017.
But the average fan was left with far more questions than answers. Why did Drake get nominated for Album of the Year, but not Best Rap Album? Why are there so many nominees for the big categories all of a sudden? And once and for all, who exactly is eligible for Best New Artist?
To answer all of this and more, Complex spoke with the Recording Academy’s senior vice president of awards, Bill Freimuth. Below is the 2018 version of our annual talk.
This year, there was an increase in nominees for Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artists from four to eight. Why expand to eight nominees? Why only in those categories?
We call them the General Field Categories. Everything else is either based on genre or craft, and these are wide open to all genres. The main reason this came about is really straightforward. In the General Field, typically we have entries exceeding 1,000 in those top four categories submitted each year. What that means is in many cases, that’s ten times the amount of entries we see in some of the specific genre categories. So we looked at it and it made sense that we should open it up to more potential nominees to be more inclusive, and to be more reflective of all the music released in the year.
Just to hone in on the word “inclusive” for a minute: Did your change to eight nominees have anything to do with trying to get a more diverse slate of nominees in those categories?
I think that’s fair to say. That’s definitely part of the thinking behind it. Then again, it really comes back to the fact that there is so much music out there. Having eight spreads it out a little more evenly.
Over the course of the year, you’ve added something like 900 new members in the Academy, right?
The 900 number are folks that were sent invitations. These people were identified by the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, along with our own membership staff. That was an unusual step for us. We don’t usually send out a bulk invitation like that, but we really wanted to increase our membership in females and people of color. In particular, [they] were the largest part of those invited. So, yes. We still have about 13,000 voting members.
Of those 900 people you invited, do you know how many became active voting members of the Academy?
You know, I don’t. [NOTE: The LA Times reports that task force head Tina Tchen told them the number was around 200.]
Are you and the Academy planning to do more bulk invitations like that in future years?
We actually have changed our entire membership model for how we reach out and how people become members. This is really the first time in our 60 year history that we made such a significant change to the membership model. It’s no secret that there’s an industry-wide issue with diversity and inclusion so we decided we needed to make this step, an impactful step, to show we’re serious about change. Really, it’s our members who are the decision makers and diversifying the membership allows for new creators to reflect the broader culture that’s out there today. They’ll have a say not only at the Grammy Awards, but lend their expertise to help shape the policy and give them a place to support future music creators. We want all these people to have access to the resources that we have: financial aid, addiction recovery, disaster relief, all that sort of thing.
It’s no secret that there’s an industry-wide issue with diversity and inclusion so we decided we needed to make this step to show we’re serious about change.
Earlier this year, the Academy announced a task force to deal with “barriers and unconscious biases faced by underrepresented communities throughout the music industry.” What specifically has the task force done?
One of the things we had been noticing: We have these Nominations Review Committees for many of our categories, which is an intermediary step that really helps independent artists and late year releases, who might not have the presence in our voter’s minds to get them into the top 5, but maybe we can get them into the top 15 or top 20 selections that then go to these committees. These are all voting members of the Academy and experts in the fields. They come and sit in a room together, listen to all the top selections, and their secret vote at the end of the meeting determines the actual nominations.
One of the things that the task force looked at was the makeup of these committees. Though we have been making some efforts to diversify these committees over the last several years, it really became much more of a mandate this year. As a result, most of the committees ended up being around 50% female, around 50% people of color.
It depends on the genre. Obviously the R&B committee was pretty much all people of color. The rock committee was all pretty much people not of color, but that’s reflective of the genres. It was very successful. I get to visit all of those nomination review committee rooms and I want to say, I think the vibe there was different. The results were markedly different than they would have been otherwise, but there was just a really positive feeling in those rooms and I think that really paid off. [NOTE: More information about other initiatives of the Task Force on Diversity & Inclusion can be found here.]
Women are very well represented in the General Field categories this year. Why is that?
Well, a lot of women made a lot of really great music this year. That’s the bottom line. I wouldn’t say that there was any sort of bias in favor of women necessarily. It really was more a matter of a lot of super high quality recordings being made by women this year.
Last year during the telecast, you received some criticism. Only one woman got a televised award and Lorde did not get a solo performance spot. Was the pushback against those choices something you guys kept in mind when planning this year’s ceremony?
Well, this year’s ceremony is just starting to be planned ,so it’s really hard to say. I think in retrospect from last year, there was a general acknowledgement that women were probably not as well represented as they could have been, and I would be really surprised if that were the case again this year.
in retrospect from last year, there was a general acknowledgement that women were probably not as well represented as they could have been. I would be really surprised if that were the case again this year.
Why does Drake have an Album of the Year nomination and not a Rap Album of the Year nomination?
That just happens sometimes. I think that people are looking for different things when they’re voting in these different categories. Both the General Field and the Rap Field have nomination review committees and those are different groups of people with different tastes. Ultimately, so much of this does come down to the tastes of our voting membership. The folks who are voting in Album of the Year saw it as one of the best albums of the year and saw it in terms of its broad reach and its artistry. For rap, I think sometimes they’re looking for something a little different, something that’s maybe a little bit more at the core and the leading edge of rap music. Not to say that Drake isn’t ever at the leading edge, but…I don’t know. I think it’s different groups of people with different tastes.
Drake didn’t submit More Life for Grammy consideration, and obviously he did submit Scorpion. Were there any direct discussions with him about either choice?
No. In fact, that’s actually a policy of ours: not to solicit entries, not to reach out to people saying, “We really need you in the process.” We’re very passive about that for a reason. We don’t want to appear showing any favoritism or bias towards a particular artist. It’s entirely up to the artist and their labels and management.
A lot of people feel like Kendrick Lamar should have won Album of the Year last year and didn’t. Do you think that affected the pile of nominations he got this year for a project he curated, but that wasn’t his album per se?
I really don’t know. We certainly encourage our voters to base strictly on the quality of the recording, and I’m gonna say that that’s what they did.
At the beginning of the year, [Academy president] Neil Portnow caught some heat for some comments he made about women needing to “step up” in order to advance their careers. What was it like inside the Academy in light of those comments and the controversy around them?
First and foremost, we understand that words have weight. We take that very seriously and we continue to treat it seriously. It did shed light on a lack of diversity in the industry, and the good news is that it has become a catalyst for change. We’ve used it internally across all departments to take definitive action, so that matters to the Recording Academy and its members. They were committed to being responsive to those we represent in this creative community, and I guess we’ve been looking at it as an opportunity. It really opened some things up for us and we’re now working a lot more closely with industry leaders to affect what we hope to be be historic change in attitudes and practices across the industry.
Every year, there are questions about Best New Artist. Last year it was Alessia Cara. This year some people are questioning why is Post Malone not eligible. Can you give me a short explanation of what exactly Best New Artist is and how you determine who’s eligible?
Best New Artist has more rules to it than any of our other categories because, really, the word “new” is fungible. There are a lot of different people that view it a lot of different ways. We have some rules that are very black and white in terms of: You need to have released as a main artist at least five singles or tracks or at least one album; you cannot have released more than 30 singles or three albums.
So that’s the really clear black and white side of it. But then there’s also another side of it which says that an artist who has achieved prominence in a previous eligibility year is no longer eligible. So what happens in some cases is somebody really hits it big in the prior year, and we have this screening committee that has over 70 industry experts on it and they discuss prominence. “Prominence” is another not terribly black and white word, so they have to go back and forth and look at what they feel to be is prominence.
And finally, what’s your album of the year?
Well I’ve been listening to a lot of Louis Armstrong lately because I will confess, I play the tuba and he’s probably been the biggest influence on my own personal musicianship—and I use the word loosely. [Laughs].
We get 22,000 entries and I listen to so many of them over the year. There are a lot of really obscure ones that I fall in love with, which never show up in our nominations list. And of course, there are a lot of major artists who do show up that I love. So again, I would say that our voters did a pretty dang good job of identifying what the best of the year was.