Grammys

What Grammy Campaigning Looks Like During a Pandemic

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Getting voters’ attention usually means showing up in person. But the pandemic has driven artists to find new tools to increase their chances.

In a typical year, being a Grammy voter means having a ticket to the best shows in town — literally. Last fall, future nominees Billie Eilish, Halsey and Lana Del Rey performed intimate concerts at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, while Post Malone showed up at Recording Academy chapter offices around the United States. They all do the Grammy dance — lobbying voters while trying not to seem obvious about it. This year is different, however.

“That whole humanity and touching stuff is not around anymore, so it’s very virtual,” says Monique Grimme, owner of Bongo Boy Records, a New Jersey independent label that sends out “for your consideration” email blasts to voters on behalf of artists ranging from singer-songwriter Fantastic Negrito to pastor/gospel singer Deitrick Haddon. When the pandemic hit, her small staff spent March and April figuring out how to pivot from glad-handing to livestreaming. “Everybody’s coping with that at the moment,” she says. “That’s the hardest part.”

The Grammys’ 12,000 voting members typically spend early September to early October narrowing the 20,000 submissions the Recording Academy receives into official nominations. That’s when labels and managers focus their “for your consideration” campaigns, which can include Sunset Boulevard billboards, ads in Billboard and other publications, and, most prominently, high-profile TV appearances on shows like CBS This Morning and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

But during the pandemic, potential nominees are missing one of their most powerful tools: live events. “There are limitations we’ve never experienced before,” says John Fleckenstein, co-president of RCA Records, whose roster includes potential nominees Childish Gambino and Doja Cat. “Every label right now is having conversations with our best candidates and thinking about, ‘What have you got going on in the best periods?’ ‘Hey, why are you doing this livestream in early September; why not do it in late September?’ ”

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Artist representatives are concentrating heavily on social media and online marketing. Patientce Foster, who works with Cardi B on brand management, says identifying voters and studying their posting habits provide clues about what they follow online. “You figure out how they spend their time and what they like to watch, and you pitch your artists in those same spaces,” she says. “We’ve been in quarantine the past six months. At this point, you’ve had enough time to track a voter’s patterns.”

Some artists are determined to avoid this kind of lobbying and let their music speak for itself — like Angel Olsen, whose Whole New Mess could gain nods for best alternative music album or best folk album. “We’re not thinking about really in-depth campaigns for anyone right now,” says Jon Coombs, vp A&R for Olsen’s label, Secretly Group. “I’m just confident a lot of voters are music fans, and if we tell a compelling story through the album, it will connect.”

Many acts are campaigning more aggressively. Haddon hopes to score a best gospel performance/song nod for “I Can’t Breathe,” co-written and co-produced by former Motown A&R executive Mickey Stevenson; the two will cohost the A Voice To Vote livestream on Sept. 20 in part to draw attention to the single. (Bongo Boy isn’t involved with the livestream, but Haddon’s team hired the label for an e-blast campaign.) “You can’t be in a group of people, shake some hands and say hi,” says John Payne, a consultant for Stevenson. “But you can still perform. We have a captive audience. They need something to entertain themselves, and this is a good thing to promote.”

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 19, 2020, issue of Billboard.