Awards

All Your Questions About the End of the Grammy Nomination Review Committees, Answered: Analysis

The Weeknd
Nabil Elderkin

The Weeknd

Now that we’ve all had a few days to absorb the Recording Academy’s bombshell announcement on April 30 that it is disbanding its nominations review committees (except in so-called “craft” categories), let’s answer some of your questions about this momentous change.

How will this affect the Grammy nominations?

We can probably expect fewer shockeroos -- both in terms of omitting records that met all the usual criteria and still weren’t nominated and including records that had barely registered.

This past year, The Weeknd’s failure to receive a single nomination made the most headlines, but nearly as surprising was Harry Styles’ failure to land a nomination in any of the Big Three categories: album, record and song of the year.

For most of Grammy history, The Weeknd and Styles would have been automatic Grammy nominees in the top categories -- not just because they had huge commercial success, but also because they made great records that represented a meaningful advance in their careers. They did everything right, and still didn’t get nominated (in the top categories, in Styles’ case).

Meanwhile, two of the album of the year nominees barely made a blip on the Billboard 200. Black PumasBlack Pumas (Deluxe Edition) peaked at No. 200 by the time of the nominations (it got as high as No. 86 after the awards). Jacob Collier’s Djesse Vol. 3 didn’t chart at all.

The committee seemed to see its mission, at least in part, as championing new and worthy artists. That’s not unreasonable. Everyone who had the slightest interest in popular music had heard The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” countless times. You can picture some committee members saying: “Why not give that slot instead to a quality act that could really use the boost?”

The counter-argument is that isn’t the Grammys’ primary role -- to break an artist or play “tastemaker.” When you have multiple agendas, your central purpose can get muddled.

In recent years, we have seen more and more nominees in the Big Four categories -- the aforementioned Big Three plus best new artist -- that made little commercial impact. It seems unlikely they would have been nominated without getting a boost from the committee.

In the past three years, four singles were nominated for record of the year that never appeared on the Billboard Hot 100: Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke,” Bon Iver’s “Hey, Ma,” H.E.R.’s “Hard Place” and Black Pumas’ “Colors.”

Going forward, we can probably expect to see fewer artists chosen because they would make the Grammys look cool or hip. In the 2019 awards cycle, the committee did not award a best new artist nod to Lewis Capaldi. Instead, they anointed Black Pumas, Tank and the Bangas and Yola. With the voters having the final say, the Lewis Capaldis of the world -- talented and successful artists who aren’t necessarily buzzy or critical favorites -- may have a better shot at Grammy recognition.

We may also see more country albums and more film soundtracks nominated. The committee nominated just 11 country albums for album of the year in 26 years and just three soundtracks (Waiting to Exhale, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Black Panther: The Album, Music From and Inspired By).

So do you see this decision as a good thing?

I like things that are real, even if they're imperfect. I don't care that much what 20 people sitting around a table think -- especially when they're being oh-so calculating and image-conscious. I care much more what the broad membership thinks. The unvarnished truth is more interesting to me than a highly refined alternate version of the truth.

It always struck me as problematic that thousands of Grammy voters could want someone to be nominated and a small, handpicked committee could essentially overrule them. Something could conceivably rank first with rank-and-file voters and not even get nominated. Theoretically, the committee could bypass all of the voters’ top five picks and come up with a completely different slate of nominees, drawing from further down the list.

When I saw nominations for left-field candidates who probably didn’t get there without a boost from the committee, I was happy for those acts, but I also wondered what was knocked out to make room for them.

Why did the Grammys institute nominations review committees in the first place?

The idea in forming these committees was that experts in each of the genre fields would be more apt to be really plugged in, and less apt to vote for sentimental favorites, big names or best-sellers.

The move to nominations review committees began in 1989 with the classical categories, followed shortly after by jazz.

The committee approach was adopted in the Big Four categories in 1995, after controversy erupted over some of the 1994 Grammy nominations. Some argued that album of the year nods for Tony Bennett and The Three Tenors -- and none that year for alternative or hip-hop artists -- showed that the Grammys were out of touch.

The nominations review committee approach expanded over the years to the point that such committees came to have the final say in the vast majority of categories.

When I crunched the numbers a couple of months ago, I was surprised to learn that rank-and-file Grammy voters determined final nominees in just 12 of 84 categories.

In a whopping 59 categories, rank-and-file voters voted in the first round and then nominations review committees had the final say in determining the nominees.

The final nominees in the remaining 13 categories were determined by so-called “craft committees.”

So they installed nominations review committees in the Big Four categories as a reaction to controversy over the nominations and they’re dissolving them as a reaction to controversy over the nominations.

Basically. It seems to me the backlash over The Weeknd being shut out was bigger and louder and more public than any grumbling 26 years ago over Tony Bennett and The Three Tenors being nominated.

Didn’t the committees help to ensure that the nominations were more diverse in terms of race, gender and genre?

Yes, but they did it in a self-conscious way, not in an organic way. The Recording Academy has been working hard to expand and diversify its membership, which is a better, more organic way to achieve the same result.

The Academy’s membership has evolved considerably since 1994, both through normal attrition (a fair number of the members who voted in 1994 have retired or died) and as a result of the Academy’s aggressive outreach efforts in recent years.

In effect, the Trustees seem to have agreed that these committees have outlived their usefulness.

It’s probably a little late to ask this, but how did the committees work?

The committees were presented with an alphabetical list of the top vote-getters by rank-and-file voters in a given category. The committee in the Big Four categories saw the top 20 vote-getters in each of these categories. The committees in various genre fields saw the top 15 vote-getters in each category.

These committees were fairly small. There were 25 plus people in the Big Four committee room; about 15 to 18 in each of the genre field committees.

The committee members listened, discussed and voted. Their votes alone determined the final nominations. How the rank-and-file voters ranked the entries was immaterial. In fact, the Academy insisted, the committee members had no way of knowing what finished first in the voting among rank-and-file-members and what finished last.

If you ever saw nominees in categories below the Big Four where your initial action was astonishment that those records or artists made the voters’ top 15 in the first place, your instincts were probably correct. The Academy only recently revealed that in the genre committees -- but not in the Big Four committee – committee members had the option of replacing up to two of the listed candidates with write-ins (provided the write-ins were released in the eligibility year).

What artists did the best with the committee?

In the 26 years that a nominations review committee had the final say in the Big Four categories, Taylor Swift amassed more album of the year nods as a lead artist than anyone else (four).

Dixie Chicks, Kanye West, Radiohead, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Beck, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar are second, with three album of the year nods in this time period. (Lamar had one more as a featured artist on the Black Panther soundtrack.)

Thirteen artists amassed two album of the year nods (as lead artists) in this time period: Bob Dylan, OutKast, Mariah Carey, Paul McCartney, U2, Justin Timberlake, Foo Fighters, Adele, Bruno Mars, Drake, H.E.R., Coldplay and Post Malone. (If you were to combine group and solo achievements, you could add Fugees/Lauryn Hill and The White Stripes/Jack White.)

What genres did the best with the committee?

In this 26-year period, 40 albums were nominated for album of the year that the Grammys classified as pop. Using the Grammys’ own classifications for all of these albums, that makes pop the top genre for this period, followed by rock and rap, each with 21 album of the year nominations. Contemporary R&B is next with 14 nominations. (The name of the genre was changed, first to urban contemporary and now progressive R&B.)

Alternative music is next with 13 album of the year nominations, followed by country (11), R&B (eight), contemporary folk and/or Americana (five), jazz (two), electronic dance (2) and compilation soundtrack (1).

If you were to combine R&B and contemporary R&B, that genre would sail into second place, with 22 album of the year nominations in this period.

Note: Waiting to Exhale, a 1996 album of the year nominee, wasn’t eligible for a genre album category because of the rules in place at the time. It’s the only album of the year nominee from this 26-year period that’s not included in the above tallies.

Didn’t Grammy voters nominate some pretty lame records back in the day before committees?

Yes. I’m still amazed that Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” (1976) and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” (1992) were nominated for both record and song of the year. But if we’re going to bring up the lame records that were nominated, we’ve also got to acknowledge the great ones that made it through the Grammy system.

It’s worth remembering that rank-and-file voters, with no committees to guide them or overrule them, selected three Stevie Wonder albums to win album of the year and also awarded Grammys in that category to such landmark albums as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and U2’s The Joshua Tree.

In the record of the year category, they awarded Grammys to Eagles’ “Hotel California” and Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and nominated Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft,” Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer,” Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.”

So they made some pretty good calls, too, over the years.