"Our trustees felt like the time had come; it's been on our radar for a couple of years now," said Recording Academy SVP of Awards Bill Freimuth about the change in attitude away from retail-only releases. "The goal was to include recordings that were worthy of Grammy consideration that were streaming-only -- which it turns out were a pretty small number -- and exclude the 12-year-old singing a Beyonce cover into her comb that's easy to put up online also these days for streaming."
That distinction comes in a tweak to the Academy's definition of "general distribution," which had previously been defined as "sales by label to a branch or recognized independent distributor, via the internet, or mail order/retail sales for a nationally marketed product." The new language expands that definition to include "applicable streaming services," which themselves are qualified as "paid subscription, full catalogue, on-demand streaming/limited download platforms that have existed as such within the United States for at least one full year as of the submission deadline."
Under the new guidelines, any recording released to at least one of the "majors" of the space -- Spotify (due to its paid tier), Apple Music, Tidal or Google Play, for example -- would qualify as a release in general distribution. Recordings released exclusively via Pandora, which has not yet launched an on-demand service, or Soundcloud Go, which only debuted at the end of March and would not have a full year under its belt by the Sept. 30 cutoff, would not be eligible; similarly, smaller genre-specific streamers would not pass the "full catalogue" litmus test. YouTube-only releases are also ineligible, as would mixtapes released for free via sites such as Datpiff or LiveMixtapes that are not also available elsewhere.
"We think that [language] is actually a key to making this work for us and should really accomplish that goal of making sure that the artists who, I guess primarily for philosophical reasons, are releasing through streaming only, that they're eligible while excluding still most, if not all, the amateur recordings," Freimuth said.
The streaming news will be welcome to artists such as Chance the Rapper, whose fervent calls for the Academy to consider free music was backed up by his latest release, Coloring Book, which became the first ever streaming-only release to chart on the Billboard 200 in May. Coloring Book, which debuted at No. 8 with all of its 38,000 equivalent album units coming from 57.3 million first-week streams, remained an Apple Music exclusive for two weeks before being released wide to Spotify, Tidal and other services. The rule amendment will make Chance eligible for Grammy consideration for the first time as a lead artist.
As streaming becomes the dominant music consumption platform -- it became the biggest single source of revenue for the U.S. music industry in 2015, according to the RIAA -- the battle between services over exclusive releases and windowing has heated up, particularly between Apple Music and Tidal. But a hypothetical non-windowed, streaming-only exclusive for a single service -- for instance, if Chance had never released Coloring Book wide and kept it on Apple Music in perpetuity -- would still be eligible under the general distribution guidelines.
"We actually had a lot of discussion about that," Freimuth said, noting that Walmart retail exclusives were eligible in the past. "We feel that that thinking is consistent with precedent."
The streaming switch is just one of four announced changes. In a similar move to reflect the changing nature of the industry, the Best New Artist guidelines have removed the necessity for an artist to have released an album within the eligibility period. Instead, the new rules say an artist "must have released a minimum of five singles/tracks or one album, but no more than 30 singles/tracks or three albums."
And there's a tweak to the Rap field as well, as Best Rap/Sung Collaboration is amended to Best Rap/Sung Performance, a change intended to make the category more inclusive and allow for not just collaborations, but also for solo tracks that blur the line between singing and rapping.
"The artist that I hear most often in reference to this is Drake," Freimuth said. "He does a lot of singing and rapping together as a single artist, and if we required it to be a collaboration, well, it can't be Drake featuring Drake. They would have to listen closely as to whether it was predominantly singing or predominantly rapping as to whether it would go into the R&B or Rap [fields]. And now it's a much more comfortable fit."
Additionally, the number of categories that Recording Academy members are allowed to vote for decreased from 20 to 15 (not counting the four main general categories), a move the organization said in a press release is geared to "encourage members to vote only in those categories in which they are most knowledgeable, passionate, and qualified." And the Best Blues Album award has been split in two, one for Best Traditional Blues Album and one for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
"The process for the changes is one of the elements of the overall process of which I'm proudest, because it keeps us as current and as relevant as we can and it keeps the process dynamic," Freimuth added. "We're happy about that and we're glad to make changes every year."