The Secrets to Grammy Campaign Success

Last year, Post Malone’s efforts to grab Grammy voters’ attention included appearances at Recording Academy chapter offices in major U.S. cities and a full-page Billboard ad paid for by his label, Republic Records. But while he garnered four nominations (including album and record of the year), he walked away from the night empty-handed. “There’s no right way to win a Grammy,” says his manager, Dre London. “It’s the most unpredictable awards show in the world.”

The Recording Academy receives over 20,000 submissions per year, which the academy’s voting members narrow down into nominations in 84 categories. Overt solicitation for votes -- from bribes to including an artist’s balloting number in an ad -- leads to disqualification by the academy, so artists’ teams have long looked for other ways to stand out. But as competition intensifies and genre lines become more blurred, Grammy campaigns are becoming more complicated, and crucial, than ever.

“The best Grammy campaigns start the moment you hear music,” says RCA Records co-president John Fleckenstein, who decides when signing an artist whether the Grammys will be a major part of his or her career. That meant a “long development” phase for R&B breakout H.E.R., who signed to RCA eight years ago. Only in 2018 did RCA begin focusing on late-night slots and major press looks; the singer ultimately won in two of her five nominated categories.

One manager says that standard Grammy campaigns run 18 months ahead of awards night. “A rookie manager will submit an artist too close to the deadline, when you didn’t have time to promote the record,” she adds. That’s why many artists who release music near the start of the fourth quarter take advantage of a small window of submission flexibility and put their projects up for the following year’s Grammys. (But not always: Kendrick Lamar submitted “i,” the buzzy lead single for To Pimp a Butterfly, just before voting began in September 2014, and the track still earned Lamar his first two awards four months later.)

Deciding which categories offer the best chances is key. This year, London struggled with where to submit “Sunflower,” Post Malone’s hit team-up with Swae Lee; outside of record and song of the year, the track could fall under pop, rap or R&B. “We went back and forth with the label before submitting it, like, ‘Are you sure this is right?’” he says. (He declined to reveal their final decision.) Fleckenstein faces a similar challenge with pop/R&B star Khalid, who he says is one of RCA’s top Grammy priorities. “It doesn’t make sense to take a genre-specific song and go up against a big pop song,” says Fleckenstein of record of the year competition. “But if you know your audience, that can guide where you have the best shot of winning.” (Final decisions on category placement are made by an academy screening committee.)

From there, attracting votes for nomination is all about timing. It’s ideal for a song to hit its peak during voting season in September and October -- and the more concurrent hits, the better. “Do not take your foot off the gas,” says London. “You need to remind them, ‘Hey, remember me?’”  Patientce Foster, who worked on Cardi B's team during the run-up to the 61st annual awards, thinks the rapper’s memorable Jimmy Kimmel Live! appearance in October 2018, during which she cracked jokes about new motherhood, was crucial to winning rap album of the year for Invasion of Privacy. “A lot of that was calculated,” says Foster, who now owns PR firm The Cream Agency. For 2020, she thinks Cardi’s colorful social media presence will keep February’s retro Bruno Mars collaboration, “Please Me,” fresh on voters’ minds.

Putting in face time helps. While on tour, many artists take part in meet-and-greets and performances at the 12 Grammy chapter offices. At one Los Angeles event last summer, London recalls “the whole building” watching Post Malone perform: “You see the looks on people’s faces like, ‘Wow, this is real.’” Some artists participate in the Grammy Museum’s “in conversation” events, as Dua Lipa and Brandi Carlile did ahead of their 2019 wins.

Many labels also put up costly “For Your Consideration” billboards in West Hollywood, which can run from $8,000 to $150,000 a month depending on size and location, says Outdoor Media Group president Ryan Laul. The academy permits billboards as long as they don’t explicitly reference the Grammys, but some campaigns shy away from such flashy promotion. “I don’t believe running gobs of advertising is going to convince anybody that one piece of art is better,” says Fleckenstein. Laments one manager: “We all know people that show up with their artists [wherever] a Grammy event is. I’m not going to force my people on you.”

Rebecca Shapiro, senior vp at publicity firm Shorefire Media, also prefers a subtler approach, like landing stories about clients such as Zac Brown Band and Morrissey in Mix Magazine, Tape Op and other trade publications found in studios. “Oftentimes, engineers and producers are voting members,” she says.

The best strategy, of course, is to make music that resonates in the first place. Fed up with a campaign process that’s often futile, London says he’s paring down his efforts this year, offering only one surefire piece of advice: “Make sure you make the biggest hits of your life.”

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Billboard. 

2020 Grammy Awards