How Linda Chorney, an Unknown, Scored a Grammy Nomination
Rain derailed Linda Chorney's plan to film a music video on Dec. 11 at the base of the Hollywood sign. The video's producer, the film producer Forrest Murray, quickly shifted gears, hoping to secure the stage at Amoeba Records to shoot Chorney performing her song "Cherries."
The window of opportunity was short -- Chorney had a redeye flight booked to take her home to New Jersey that night and the point of the video is to draw attention to her Grammy nomination in the Americana album category, where she is up against Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and other stalwarts of the genre.
Chorney, whose nominated album "Emotional Jukebox" has never registered a Nielsen SoundScan sale, has been in name recognition mode since the Grammy nominations were announced on Nov. 30. She performed live on KLOS' Sunday show "Breakfast with the Beatles" (she covers "I'm Only Sleeping" on the album) on Dec. 11; did interview pieces with dailykos.com and Variety; and booked a few gigs in New Jersey this month and next.
All of it owes to her securing a Grammy nomination, which she received after meticulously befriending voting members of the Recording Academy through its Grammy365 website .
"Without Grammy365 I wouldn't have gotten anywhere," Chorney said during a visit to Billboard's Los Angeles offices. "I guess it proves that, while there are a lot of great independent artists, having great music isn't enough. By taking the responsibility of voting (for the Grammys), you have a shot at getting your music heard."
Chorney, 51, has supported herself for 25 years as a musician. She is based in Sea Bright, N.J., where she moved nearly five years ago after bouncing from one vacation destination to another, trading performances for scuba outings, greens fees, health care and lift tickets. A chance encounter with a Continental Airlines flight attendant led to the gift of a pass that allowed her fly standby all over the world, which she used to secure gigs in places she would otherwise not visit -- Australia and the Caribbean, for example. A friendship that turned romantic led her to post roots in New Jersey after years of nomadic living.
Her "Emotional Jukebox" is her sixth album and, as she has done in the past, she pressed 1,000 copies in the initial run. A doctor, Jonathan Schneider, financed the album -- it went $30,000 over budget to come in at $80,000 -- which allowed her to circumvent the usual Kickstarter -- like fan-support system she has built over the last decade.
Chorney offers fans six CDs and a mention as a "Groovy Supporter" if they pony up $100, and 30 CDs and a mention as a "Wicked Awesome Supporter." (Yes, she is from Massachusetts). On "Emotional Jukebox," Groovy lists 22 people and entities; nine are Wicked Awesome.
"The budgets are usually $10,000," Chorney says, "but Jonathan came to me and said, 'I want you to make the album you feel you will never be able to make.' A lot of the first album was pre-sold."
Pre-sales. Not a common facet of the music business, but a key reason why Chorney's name is barely a blip on Nielsen SoundScan. She has never had an album officially sell more than 25 copies and "Emotional Jukebox" has yet to register an official sale despite being available at iTunes, CDBaby and Amazon. One might add that they are priced well above standard rates, which means most of her physical sales occur at her website and at her occasional shows. Still, she has yet to go into a second pressing for any of her albums.
Plenty of independent artists score Grammy nominations and get from the nominations to the ceremony without much attention. Chorney might not have the spotlight shone in her eyes had she not wound up in an area that was bound to get extra scrutiny due to the Recording Academy's consolidation and reduction of categories. The American Roots field saw blues and folk scaled back to single categories from two each and regional roots music album was four old categories placed under one roof. Americana has been a category for just two years, separated from contemporary folk in 2009; its nominees and winners are such a who's who of music -- Mavis Stales, Levon Helm, Robert Plant, Steve Earle -- that it rarely includes musicians not considered legends.
So when the list of more than 160 albums in the Americana category were sent to voters, Chorney had a short window to get a lot of work accomplished. Her sax player Thomas Hitchings had encouraged her to join the Academy in 2010 so she could submit her album for consideration; two weeks before initial ballots were due, her partner Scott Fadynich did the clerical research on Grammy365.com, a social networking area for Academy members to communicate, to figure out which of the site's members vote on the awards.
"After 10 days I had made about 1,500 contacts," she says, adding that she received inspiring messages from people who work in areas outside the American Roots field. She does not know how many people voted for inclusion in the final five and admits the nomination has not resulted in music sales.
"The writing is wonderful," says the video director Murray ("Bob Roberts"), who knew Chorney when she was splitting her year between Manhattan and the Hamptons. They re-connected right before the Grammy nominations were announced. "I loved the song -- it's American heritage storytelling. I've never made a video in my 45 years in the motion pictures business. This will be my contribution."
When the nominations were announced, label executives who work in the Americana field were discussing Chorney's name. They had not heard her music, were not aware that she had been performing since the late 1980s and definitely not aware that she had run her own label for 10 years -- essentially ever since meetings with labels never panned out.
"I thought this was my last album," says Chorney, "so I did it differently from my others. I didn't care how long a solo was or how long a song went. I made it as musical as possible and didn't care if it fit in anywhere."
Her subject matter changed, too, as she switched from songs about sex and bad romances to tuneful acoustic guitar-driven odes to hope and happiness. "I don't think it's my last album anymore."