When Grammy Voters Pick the Nominees, Who Will Benefit?

grammys voting 2021
Illlustration by Dani Choi

The Recording Academy's decision to ditch Grammy nomination review committees gives more power to members, who are younger and more diverse than ever.

After decades of having "secret" review committees determine Grammy Award nominations in an ever-increasing number of categories, it's majority rule again at the venerable awards show. So the nominations for the 64th annual Grammys may look a bit different when they're announced later this year: Expect fewer surprise omissions of records that met the usual benchmarks for commercial and artistic success and cultural impact, and fewer head-scratching inclusions of projects that didn't make a significant impression. And when the next outrage does inevitably occur, the Recording Academy can now skirt blame by pointing to an easy-to-understand nomination process that puts power back in the hands of the 11,000-person voting membership.

The academy board of trustees' April 30 vote to disband nomination-review committees — whose membership, but not existence, was kept secret — walks back a decades-old practice that frequently stirred controversy and was at odds with the academy's professed desire for transparency.

The process started in 1989, when the first nominations-review committee was added in the classical field. By 2020, it was implemented in 59 out of 84 award categories. The major turning point came in 1995, when the committee approach was adopted in the Big Four categories — album, record and song of the year, and best new artist — after Tony Bennett and The Three Tenors both scored album of the year nods the year prior, while alternative rock and hip-hop artists that dominated the era were left out.

The idea was that the creatives and executives deemed genre experts who made up the 15- to 30-person committees would be less likely than the general membership to vote for sentimental favorites, big names or bestsellers. In the first five years, this benefited acts such as Pearl Jam, The Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Garbage and TLC, all of whom received album of the year nominations. Over time, however, the committee also seemingly bypassed front-runner pop acts including Justin Timberlake, Ed Sheeran and, most recently, The Weeknd, whose hit album After Hours and its smash single, "Blinding Lights," failed to receive even one nomination this year. In an ironic twist, committee oversight was implemented to keep the Grammys from seeming out of touch; now it's being abandoned for the same reason.

Since 2018, academy leadership has aggressively focused on increasing membership diversity, primarily through recruitment: After adding 1,345 new voting members last year — about 12% of its total — the academy reported that people from traditionally underrepresented (nonwhite) communities now account for 27% of overall membership (up from 25% the year before), and people who are 39 or younger account for 28% (up from 25%). Women account for 26% (the same as the year before).

Now the academy is also planning a new review process that's likely to disproportionately weed out older members. As part of the April 30 vote, the academy will begin requiring existing members to reapply for membership. By the end of 2021, over 90% of members will have undergone the requalification process, with a goal, according to a statement, of "ensuring that the voting body is actively engaged in music creation." Whereas academy membership had previously been for life, members will now have to show that they have accrued one new credit within the past five years and that music remains their primary career.

A younger, more diverse membership will be less likely to snub acts like The Weeknd, and probably won't pick as many surprise nominees like Jacob Collier (whose 2020 album of the year nod had many Googling his name) or Black Pumas, Tank and the Bangas and Yola (who all notably edged out Lewis Capaldi from 2019's best new artist class). But don't expect drastic changes: As the broadest genre, pop will likely continue to dominate, while hip-hop's growing influence is sure to continue and country may move up the ranks thanks to the academy's sizable Nashville membership.

While the review committees became controversial, they did consider genre, gender and racial diversity, albeit imperfectly. That oversight won't exist now, and the academy can only hope that an increasingly diverse membership can deliver results that make sense to both the industry and fans.

Looming over the change is the search for a permanent academy president/CEO after Deborah Dugan was ousted in January 2020 after less than six months in the position. That hire is expected to be made by the end of May or early June. This will likely be the last major action that Harvey Mason Jr. will oversee as interim president/CEO (although he's expected to be elected to a second term as chair). [Update: On May 13, the academy announced Mason Jr. would take over the president/CEO position permanently and would step down as chair.] With the 13-month eligibility period for the 64th awards already about two-thirds finished, the academy needed to move now to enact this change for the 2022 honors.

And then there's The Weeknd, whose name will forever be linked to this decision, even though a task force had been considering a proposal to disband nomination-review committees since last summer, according to an academy representative — months before this year's nominees were announced. "The Grammys remain corrupt," The Weeknd tweeted Nov. 24. "You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency." The academy just took a big step in that direction.