Grammy Preview: Is Awards Inclusivity Finally Making Progress?

Grammy Awards
Illustration by Susan Burghart


At this time last year, The Recording Academy made one of its most sweeping changes since the Grammys launched in 1959, expanding the number of nominations in the Big Four categories -- record, song and album of the year plus best new artist -- from five to eight. Then, that October, its Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion invited 900 new voting members with an emphasis on women, people of color and people under age 39. Both changes took effect at last February’s 61st annual ceremony.

Nearly a year later, industry opinion is mixed as to whether these changes are fostering the kind of diversity and inclusiveness they set out to achieve -- both among nominees and in the academy’s membership. One voting producer with credits in both R&B/hip-hop and pop acknowledges he was “cautiously optimistic” but allows that last year’s album of the year field was in fact “more diverse,” with Cardi B, H.E.R. and Post Malone alongside Janelle Monáe, Drake, Brandi Carlile, Kendrick Lamar and his Black Panther: The Album crew, and Kacey Musgraves (who won). “I thought initially that expanding the nominations was too much of a reach,” one major-label senior vp of promotion reflects now. “But half of the artists on there wouldn’t have gotten that nod without the expansion. The category would have stayed 100% white and pop.”

Bill Freimuth, the Grammys’ chief awards officer, says the academy received significant positive feedback “specifically from our voting members” about the expansion. Still, some concerns persist. With more nominee slots available, vote-splitting could still end up excluding artists in less represented genres. And despite last year’s early advances, some industry observers say substantive change will take time. “You still have a predominant membership body that will vote in alignment with how votes have skewed over the past 20 years,” says the producer.

More well-intended change is afoot: In June, the academy announced it was extending 1,340 more invitations to creators and business professionals, part of a new peer-recommended membership model introduced last October with the aforementioned 900 invites. But voters hope the academy will soon take more aggressive steps toward reflecting the industry’s current realities -- like expanding nomination slots within genre categories, redefining some categories altogether and addressing the fading importance of albums.

“With the industry becoming more global, genre-blending is something that has to be addressed,” says one senior major-label executive. “And there should be more track categories within the genre fields to support the increased collaborations that are happening.” Dre London, Post Malone’s manager, notes that one of his client’s new tracks, “Take What You Want,” features Ozzy Osbourne and Travis Scott: “How do you put that into a bracket? You can’t have the same old categories, because music is so much broader now.”

According to Freimuth, discussions about additional changes have not yet occurred, “nor have any proposals been put forward.” To the label, management, promotion and creative leaders interviewed for this story, the changes already in effect are a positive start but just one element of a necessarily ongoing evolution. “This go-round will be a telltale sign if it’s working,” says the promotion senior vp. “But I don’t think the Grammys have identified the overall issues. It can’t keep putting on Band-Aids.”

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

2020 Grammy Awards


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