Grammy VP Bill Freimuth on Kendrick Lamar & Courtney Barnett's Big Nods, and That Crazy Urban Contemporary Category

Bill Freimuth
Kris Connor/WireImage for NARAS

Bill Freimuth poses for a portrait during the Business, Beats and Inspiration: GRAMMY 101 event at Eubie Blake Cutural Center on June 26, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Awards shows can be a thankless task, and one of the more remarkable things about the 2016 Grammy nominees, announced Monday morning, is how positive the reaction to them has been. Kendrick Lamar garnered 11 nominations, indie darling Courtney Barnett scored one for Best New Artist, D’Angelo got a nod for Record of the Year, and -- with The Internet, Keilani and Lianne La Havas joining The Weeknd and Miguel -- Urban Contemporary became one of the most adventurous categories on the list, to name just four positive developments. We caught up with Recording Academy VP of Awards Bill Freimuth to discuss this year’s crop. 

Over the past 10 years, the Grammys seem to have gotten a lot more contemporary. Has that been a conscious effort? 

We always strive to be contemporary and relevant -- maybe we’ve had more success with that in the last few years.  

Do you have any thoughts as to why Kendrick Lamar got so many nominations? 

I just think that album was just a revelation to so many people this year, and not only was it good music, but it was good culture. It was the right album at the right time for what are in many ways socially and culturally very difficult times -- it’s a leading light that is showing us a way to deal with what's going on in the world. It simply resonated with lots and lots of people on lots of levels. 

The Urban Contemporary category really took a lot of us by surprise: Last year it was Beyonce and Chris Brown, and this year was The Internet and Kehlani and Lianne La Havas in addition to Miguel and The Weeknd. Was there a change in the description of that category? 

No, there wasn't. We've had the same definition for the last several years for that category. What the category was created to address originally was music that really, at its heart, R&B, but incorporating a lot of elements from hip-hop and electronic dance music and pop and more contemporary, forward-thinking production techniques, so it's not an easy category to get screened into. A lot of the albums that are initially entered in that category end up getting moved to R&B if they don't really have that kind of progressive vibe and blending of other genres in there, so the people who do our screening -- there are different people every year -- may have had something to do with it. We've also been doing quite a bit of outreach as an academy with the R&B music community. I don't have any stats for you on that, but I would like to think that we've gotten quite a few more of the most prolific and relevant members of that [genre] to be members of the academy. While they're tough to track and they might appear subtle, I do think that they play out in the nominations.  

Grammy Nominations 2016: Alabama Shakes and Courtney Barnett Surprise in Rock

By the same token, the biggest surprise nomination that I'm hearing is Courtney Barnett -- not because she doesn't deserve it, but because she's so much less known to the general population than the others. How does an artist like that get nominated? 

First of all, she made a great album. I'd like to think that even though she's certainly not a household name with music fans around the country, I do think that she really did pop into notice for people who are actually making music and following it in that kind of depth. I listen to an awful lot of the best new artist nominees back-to-back and when she came up, it was a whole different world: This is something that's really happening now, this is fresh, this is different, this is new. And not only all of that, it's just really good music.  

Usually the Producer of the Year nominees have worked on multiple albums, but Blake Mills just worked on the Alabama Shakes record, with the band. How and why did that happen? 

First, Alabama Shakes may be credited as producer but they are not up for Producer of the Year, which is a body of work. If you're an artist whose only production credits are your own album, then you're not eligible to enter there, so this is really Blake's nomination. How did that happen? Producer of the Year works a bit differently from some of our other categories. I won't get into too much detail about it, because it's really dry and really long, but it’s a very complicated process that involves a lot of the leaders in the current producing world, and they really listen. They actually get together and regionally -- we have meetings in LA, New York, and Nashville -- and they are together in a room listening through all of these entries and listening just with an ear towards the production. They're really not paying nearly as much attention to performance or songwriting or even engineering, it's really about what the producer did to contribute to this work. And evidently, Blake's work on this album was just so impressive to all of those folks. It was a conscious choice by the Alabama Shakes and their team to reach out to somebody who was really going to make a mark on their recording through production. It's not just straight up rock or pop or Americana production: It's really something very different, and I think that they wanted somebody to bring a richness and a depth and for lack of a better word, quirkiness, to the work that will really make it stand out and obviously that worked for him. It's very sophisticated, and I think there's a progressiveness and kind of a fearlessness, an anti-orthodoxy to the way it's done. Even the way the songs are structured and the unusual time signatures makes it stand out.  

Max Martin worked on two of the album of the year nominees, but he didn't get a producer of the year nod. Do you have any thoughts as to why that might have happened? 

That's a tough one. I think that obviously Max is very well regarded by our membership, and he actually won the award last year and perhaps that's what they do, maybe our voters said "Well, he got it last year. Let's give somebody else a chance." That's pure speculation on my part. The other thing that I really think did happen was that they might have really loved the work Max did this year, but maybe not just quite as much as the work that these other five folks did. It's very intense competition for producer of the year.  

Do you think those kinds of emotional factors – “give somebody else a chance” -- really do play a role in voting members' decisions? 

I'm certainly not a mind-reader for our voters. All I know is we are very explicit when we send out our ballots that people are to be judging on the quality of the recordings alone and we certainly hope that all of our members take that responsibility very seriously.  

Is there anything particularly striking to you about this year? 

I guess the word that keeps coming in my head when I look up the various nominations and the various categories is diversity. Look at category of Best Metal Performance. You've got Slipknot and Lamb of God, both of them have been around for a number of years and have very large followings, and then you've got August Burns Red crossing over from Christian metal and being much younger. Ghost, much younger. I think you can find that in almost every category that we're hitting the various sub-genres within the category. It's not five nominees that all just sound alike. And there's also a diversity in age, in geography and all those things. 

Some people were expecting Hamilton to have a bigger presence. Do you have any thoughts on why it didn't? 

Not really. To say it's highly regarded is an understatement, but I'm not sure that the recording of the album has [been as strong]. People love the show and certainly they love the music, but the soundtrack maybe needs a little more time out there to get that really broad recognition and awareness among not only voters but the general public.  

What's the most fun part and the most challenging parts of your job? 

The most fun part is spending a lot of time with music people -- not only seeing fantastic performances that I’m blessed to be able to see, but also, we have all of these committees that review and go over all of our category structures and rules and there's a tremendous amount of administration behind all of that. When it comes to the main results, I feel that I'm among friends, that the music community is filled with so many great, warm, creative people that are just fun to be with. 

I guess the most challenging part is probably the volume of work that we have to do and the limited amount of time we have to do it: making deadlines, making sure that come [the nominations announcement], we feel absolutely secure about the fact that these nominations are what the voters are looking for -- and that they're eligible and that we spelled everything right. I have a really terrific team of folks in my department who really do the heavy lifting and somehow, miraculously, we manage to get it done every year. 

2016 Grammys