Grammy Insider: The Story Behind The Recording Academy's Blue Ribbon Grammy Voting Committees

Anderson .Paak
Rich Fury/Invision/AP

Anderson .Paak performs at the NPR Showcase at Stubb's during South By Southwest on March 16, 2016 in Austin, Texas.

What’s so wrong about going with the popular vote?

What’s so wrong about going with the popular vote? That’s a question that comes up not just with the U.S. presidential election but is debated in Grammy-watching circles.

More than 20 years after the Recording Academy introduced blue-ribbon committees to its Grammy-award voting process to winnow down the last round of nominees in its top four categories -- album, record and song of year and best new artist -- the organization is weathering complaints that the process lacks transparency.  

One former label A&R exec, reflecting the gripes of others interviewed for this article, tells Billboard that the process leaves no way of knowing if a nominee won the popular vote among the Academy's 14,000 members "but didn’t get selected by the committee -- or if it just didn’t get the votes in the first place.”

Although for the first time in recent memory, four of the five nominees for Album of the Year were also the top-selling albums released within the eligibility period, -- Adele's 21, Beyonce's Lemonade, Drake's Views and Justin Bieber's Purpose --critics have zeroed in on the fifth, alt-country artist Sturgill Simpson's critically heralded but minimally mainstream A Sailor's Guide to Earth, which has sold just under 146,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen Music, a fraction of the competition. Surprise nominees in other categories, such as indie hip-hop newcomer Anderson Paak, who was nominated in the best new artist category, and the cult French metal band Gojira, which saw its latest release Magma, nominated in the best rock album category, also struck some industry sources as mysteriously motivated “committee choices.”

The contention that Grammy committees are surreptitiously steering the nomination process understandably rankles Academy officials. “I get very tired of reading in some publications about our 'secret committees' and that sort of thing,” says Bill Freimuth, the Recording Academy’s senior VP of awards. “They’re not secret. We try to be pretty transparent about this."

Although the names of the Academy members who serve on the rotating committees and the details of their annual meetings -- which take place in Los Angeles the weekend before Thanksgiving -- are kept under wraps, Freimuth says the Academy has always been forthcoming about how the panels operate and explained the process in detail to Billboard

The Origin

The blue-ribbon process began in 1989 when a classical music committee was established to oversee that genre's award categories. "The same conductors, same singers, same ensembles were getting nominated every year,"  says Freimuth. “The classical community said, 'We need to come up with something that’s going to give some other folks a chance,’ and they were thrilled at the new results.” Soon after, members from the jazz world successfully argued for the establishment of its own nomination committee. 

The protocol expanded to the Academy's four marquee all-genre awards -- album, record and song of the year and best new artist -- in May 1995 in response to backlash over some of the nominees and at least one winner at the 38th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony that had taken place earlier that year. At a time when hip hop's mainstream popularity was rising and alt-rock was peaking, Grammy voters were derided as out of touch for nominating The Three Tenors in Concert 1994 and Tony Bennett's MTV Unplugged as albums of the year (Bennett won) in a year that saw the release of Nas' now-classic Illmatic and Hole's breakthrough Live Through This albums. 

Over the next two decades, committees were added to select the final nominees in country, R&B, Latin, dance/electronic, gospel/contemporary Christian, children’s music, American roots, regional roots (separated out because of the specialized knowledge required), and -- most recently -- rock. The system hasn’t been instituted across the board, however. Rap and pop are among the genres that still go with a strict popular vote on the way to the final five.

According to Freimuth, the system has been a success in every category for which it's been implemented. "I cannot think of any instance in which we established one of these committees and the community was outraged the next year, or that people felt that the credibility went down in any way -- quite the opposite.”

Most of the committees consist of 15-18 voting members, while the panel overseeing the four all-genre categories numbers 25 or more. Academy rules mandate rotating at least 20 percent of a committee each year, to keep the decision-making fresh. Committee members include musicians, producers, engineers, managers, and other industry workers. The 12 Academy chapters submit candidates and then, Freimuth says, he, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow and the presiding chair of the national board of trustees "tweak" the committee rosters, which then must be ratified by the national board. (As part of the process, prospective committee members are asked to identify their recent work and to cite any potential conflicts of interest they may have.) 

Efforts are made to represent the Academy's 12 chapters proportionally within the voting committees, and Freimuth adds that care is taken to insure that genre committees are comprised of Academy members who are attuned that genre's subcultures. For example, he says that in the rock category, "we're making sure that we have people in the room  who really know metal because not everybody who knows rock knows metal."

Despite these checks and balances, a former Academy trustee who asked not to be identified tells BIllboard that the composition of the blue-ribbon committees do affect which nominees ultimately make the cut. “Some years you might get somebody in the room that’s more daring, and all of a sudden it’s Bon Iver [being nominated] instead of Lionel Richie."

The Academy's Nashville chapter is the third largest, behind Los Angeles and New York, and nomination of two Nashville singer-songwriters, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini, in the best new artist category has led to speculation that there was a disproportionate presence of Music City voters in "the big room," the name that Academy members have given to the gathering of committee members who preside over the nominations for the top four categories. An insider disputes this, insisting that there were no more Nashvillians than usual on the committee and that even members from the predominant New York and L.A. chapters agreed that Ballerini and Morris were no-brainers when it came to best new artist nominations.

The nomination of Paak in the same category also sparked media chatter, but members of the hip-hop intelligentsia say his inclusion is well-deserved and an example of the blue-ribbon committee process insuring that the Grammy Awards are not just a celebration of commercial success. “I think it’s great that the committee acknowledges indie artists,” says Chris Anokute, senior VP of A&R at Epic. “All of my peers are talking about the kid. He’s never been on mainstream radio but he’s done 200 tour dates this year and can sell 4,000 tickets in every market easily. Everybody in my world is obsessed with this guy.”

Inside the Process

When the genre committee members walk into the conference rooms on that pre-Thanksgiving weekend, they each receive a list of the 15 top vote getters, as selected by the general membership in the first round of balloting. The committee that oversees the four all-genre categories is given the top 20  for each award.  The lists are presented in alphabetical order, so committee members can only guess at who came in first and who ranked lower in the voting.

For the next two days, the committee members play each other their favorites from the list and debate -- and lobby -- for nomination nods. The process ends with a secret vote, even though, insiders say, a consensus is sometimes clear. “We ask them not to narrow it down so much that everybody in the room walks out knowing exactly who’s going to be nominated,” Freimuth says.

Portnow, who co-chairs the all-genre committee,  says that significant shifts in support can occur in the meetings.  "You might walk into a room with a predisposed notion that a record by a well-known artist is a slam-dunk as a finalist," he says. "Then you sit in that room for two days and listen to the competition, and come to a different conclusion because you’ve heard something that you weren’t familiar with." 

There’s one additional wrinkle to the nomination process that's a source of controversy, even among some committee members. A clause in the voting rules allows the genre committees to replace up to two of the 15 initial nominees with, essentially, write-ins. This allows for more up-to-date (provided the song or record in question was released within the eligibility period) and sometimes provocative nominations, although some committee members contend it has resulted in some unduly random -- and unmerited -- picks. 

“There’s about a 50-50 split between people who think you should or shouldn’t be allowed to do that,” says a former trustee. Although Freimuth points out that the Academy discourages the exercising of that wild-card clause "rather extremely," the former trustee explains that during committee deliberations, somebody can say, ‘No, guys, this record came out late, and it’s going to peak in the next four or five months. Let’s listen.’ There is a simple majority vote about whether or not to listen to that record, and another simple vote to determine whether it is [added to the top 15]."  Sometimes that has led to a [write-in] song getting a nomination. It’s rare, but there are moments where it has worked really great, because it was a late release and that single starts happening in January or February, and the Grammys look current." Sometimes, however, the source says, it can result in the committee "skipping over something great." 

One former member of the rock committee (who asked not to be identified) says he was dismayed to witness the members of his committee use the clause to intentionally nix commercially successful acts, like the 1975, in favor of more obscure talent. "A lot of the people in the room that year were either crusty old metal dudes or indie-rock guys who hate anything successful, and they took that year's biggest-selling rock album and knocked it off the ballot because they thought it was too commercial. Then they added two [from outside the top 15], and one was a band that one guy on the committee brought up at the end of two long days of listening. Everybody was, like, 'F--- it, let’s put that on.’"

"It was kind of ridiculous," the former rock committee member continues. "Good for the band that got put on, but it really felt unfair to some of the things that felt more worthy. There are so few [rock] bands playing arenas at this point that elitism is ridiculous to me.”

Freimuth takes exception to that charge, naturally. “Elitist is a very charged word, these days in particular,” he responds. “You have to look at the antonym, which is populist. And there are other awards for music that are based on popularity. Ultimately (nominations) come down to a group of people sitting in a room, but that group of people has gone through a rather rigorous vetting process—through our chapter system, through our national board of trustees, through other members of that genre community. So we are relying on them to ensure that our nominations reflect the best in music for that year, which sometimes has maybe not done quite so well in the marketplace. We specifically instruct committee members to avoid any discussion or consideration of sales and chart positions, and just to use their expertise, their ears and, I guess, their hearts.”

?The wild-card clause isn’t an issue in the four all-genre categories, because it's not allowed. That means, Portnow explains, that Simpson's A Sailor's Guide to Earth and Paak were among the top 20 vote-getters in, respectively, the album of the year and best new artist categories. "That's a credit to our voting membership," says the Recording Academy CEO.

Sources with knowledge of the discussions says Simpson still stirred up quite a bit of debate in both the all-genre and country committees -- particularly the latter, where some members of the Texas and Tennessee chapters were at odds over whether A Sailors Guide to Earth even qualified as a country album. One insider says there was talk among the country committee members that it would be embarrassing if Simpson’s album got nominated for album of the year but not in its genre category. The record was nominated for best country album.

The Grammy rules are nothing if not fluid, with adjustments announced every year. After this year’s telecast is past, the panel process will be reviewed by another annual panel, Awards & Nominations -- which is, in part, a committee on committees.

“They readdress it every year after the awards,” says the trustee, “looking at anything that seemed weird or out of balance. Some years they get it right and some years get it wrong. Ultimately, though, I don’t know if there’s any other way to do it [besides the blue-ribbon committees]. When I sit in those meetings, I come back to thinking this really is the best way to do it.

"It’s an imperfect system trying to be as perfect as it can,” the trustee concludes. 

2017 Grammys