Exclusive: Neil Portnow Discusses Grammys' Award Consolidation
Exclusive: Neil Portnow Discusses Grammys' Award Consolidation

In the broadest reorganization of the Grammy Awards' 53-year history, the Recording Academy has consolidated dozens of awards categories, altered eligibility requirements and rewritten the rule on how members may vote.

The impact will be immediate as next year's 54th annual Grammy Awards will have only 78 categories, 31 fewer than presented at the 53rd ceremony held in February. Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow, Academy chair emeritus Jimmy Jam and Academy VP of Awards, Bill Freimuth made the announcement Wednesday at the Academy's headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif.

The most noticeable changes are in the stripping of gender-based categories in pop, R&B, rock and country. There will no longer be separate awards for male or female vocals, simply an award in each genre for a single "solo performance." Several instrumental categories have been eliminated as well.

"Every year there are changes but we've never … stopped and stepped back to look at the whole thing," Portnow told Billboard in an exclusive interview. "[We asked], is there an underlying infrastructure and rationale across all the awards as to how we're doing this? And what we found is, there wasn't.

"So we said, 'All right, let's deal with the holy grail here. Let's sit down and talk about what might be a vision or an overview structure of this that gives us some consistency.'"

In addition to the category alterations, the Recording Academy has written new rules on entries and voting. Each category must have at least 40 artist entries to move forward. If a category receives between 25 and 39, only three recordings will receive nominations.

If there are fewer than 25 submissions, the category will not be presented. The category will be discontinued if there are fewer than 25 entries for three consecutive years.

Voters, who previously chose nine genre fields to cast votes, will now vote in up to 20 categories in the genre fields plus the four general categories. Portnow said the goal is to have more knowledgeable and focused voting.

"I think the positive side is we've taken a good, serious look at what we're doing," he said. "We contemporized it, we organized it and we visioned it in a way that will suit us going into the future. In other words, if you just continue business as usual, at some point, typically, you're going to hit some sort of a pothole in the road."

In early 2009, the Recording Academy's Awards and Nominations Committee and its trustees created a subcommittee to study categories and the process, eventually recommending the category consolidation to create parity across all fields. The board of trustees approved their recommendations.

The result is that the genre of R&B has four awards instead of eight; rock, country and pop have four awards each instead of seven.

In dissecting R&B as an example, the three categories of female, male and duo or a group vocal performance have been consolidated to R&B performance while best album, best song and traditional R&B performance are unchanged. Contemporary R&B album and urban/alternative performance, two 10-year-old categories, have been dropped.

Fields that have not been separated by gender have fewer changes. There are now five gospel categories instead of seven; jazz is down from six to four; and classical has seven instead of 11. Changes in the classical field opens the door for classical albums to compete for album of the year and for albums that formerly fit classical crossover to submit in other genre categories.

A contentious roar over the changes is likely to come from categories that have been around for only a few years, those that were added after heavy lobbying efforts. Among those are Hawaiian music, Native American music and zydeco or Cajun that have been folded into the single regional roots music category, where polka recordings will also be eligible. (The polka category was scratched in 2009). Blues, folk and world return to a single award for each, losing the distinction between contemporary and traditional.

The committee reported that they were concerned with the consistently low number of entries in the Hawaiian, Native American and zydeco or Cajun categories, all of which have been introduced in the 21st century.

The Grammy Awards receive more criticism than any other peer-to-peer arts awards show -- chiefly the Oscars, Emmys and Tonys. They were taken to task soon after this year's telecast when longtime marketing and music executive Steve Stoute called the show "a series of hypocrisies and contradictions" in a full-page ad in the New York Times. After meeting several days later, Stoute and Portnow issued a joint statement saying they would discuss how the Recording Academy could evolve "in an ever-changing cultural environment." The changes announced Wednesday were already in play, Portnow said.

"The part that not everybody will be happy about at first is getting their heads around the fact that things have changed," Portnow said. "But the fact is: Everybody [who] releases a record within the standards and the qualification elements is going to be eligible for a Grammy. It's just going to look a little different, fit in a different place than they may have. They may be facing other nominees or nominations differently than they had in the past. But at the end of the day, we think excellence will prevail."

While the Academy continually tweaks categories, most noticeably Best New Artist, the last significant upheaval came in 1995 with the introduction of review boards to make the final decisions on nominations in top categories. Nominations review committees determine the five finalists in the general, country, R&B, Latin, gospel, jazz, classical and music video categories. The last time fewer than 80 Grammy Awards were handed out at a ceremony was 1991.

Besides the general field, the fields of dance, alternative, new age, reggae, comedy, visual media, composing/arranging, package, notes, production, historical and music video are unchanged. The musical show category has been retitled musical theater.

The Recording Academy will present information sessions in its 12 chapter cities this month and in May to explain the changes. The Academy has created a "category mapper" at its website to explain changes to the membership as well.

Today at 3 p.m. PT/6 p.m. ET, Portnow, Freimuth and Jam will participate in a live online chat about the changes. The event can be viewed at livestream.com, grammy.com and the Grammys' Facebook page and on Billboard.com and Billboard.biz. Billboard's Gail Mitchell will moderate; questions may be submitted via Facebook and Twitter.

Head over to www.grammy.com/announcement for the following resources and information: a category comparison chart (comparing categories from the 53rd and upcoming 54th Grammys), an explanation of category restructuring, a category mapper (an interactive feature that will show where to enter submissions under the new structure) and more.