Grammy Preview: Inside the Complex (and Controversial) Best New Artist Selection Process

ISSUE 23 2018 - DO NOT REUSE!!!!
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Alessia Cara accepting her award at the Grammys in January.

“I’m aware that my music wasn't released yesterday,” Alessia Cara wrote on Instagram in February. She had just been crowned best new artist, and on the surface, the award made perfect sense: The singer-songwriter was one of pop’s most prominent breakout performers in 2017, thanks to her monster hit with Zedd, “Stay,” and a feature on Logic’s “1-800-273-8255.”

And yet, Cara wrote the post as a defense against the Grammy watchers who attacked her on social media, lamenting her win over acclaimed young singers like SZA and Khalid, and insisting Cara wasn't exactly a new artist. Her debut, Know-It-All, came out in 2015.

Meanwhile, this year, Post Malone looked like a shoo-in for the best new artist pool -- but is reportedly ineligible, due to the success of his 2016 debut Stoney and 2015 hits “Congratulations” and “White Iverson.” So where does he differ from Cara? As Cara also pointed out, her music had “become fairly popular in the last year.” And there she began to scratch the surface of the rules governing the Grammys’ perhaps most complexly regulated award.

Best new artist “is probably our most rule-heavy category,” admits Recording Academy senior vp awards Bill Freimuth. The rules are a mix of technical and subjective specifications, meant to reflect the ways new acts are now developed as well as how the streaming economy affects releases. Freimuth calls them “very black-and-white,” but the technical rules are intricate. An artist, duo or group must have released a minimum of five singles/tracks or one album (defined as an EP of five tracks or more) by the close of the qualifying year and no more than 30 singles/tracks or three albums over their career. If an artist exceeds those sums by even one song, he or she is disqualified.

Chart-topping country singer Kane Brown, for instance, seems an obvious contender for a 2019 best new artist nod. But he’s over the release limit, with a self-titled debut from late 2016, two earlier EPs and two more standalone singles (“I Love That I Hate You” in 2015 and the following year’s “Can’t Stop Love”).

An artist can be entered into the running for best new artist up to three times (Cara had been submitted once before), so long as they haven’t been previously nominated as a performer. The latter stipulation explains why Cardi B -- like Post Malone, a presumed front-runner for a best new artist nom -- reportedly won’t figure into the category: she already earned two nominations for “Bodak Yellow” at January’s ceremony.

But the screening committee’s final consideration falls into a gray area: the Recording Academy may disqualify someone “based on the fact that they have come to prominence in a previous year,” says Freimuth. “And that certainly does happen every year with at least a handful of artists.” It’s already happened to Post Malone, and Camila Cabello could potentially face the same fate: Her solo debut, Camila, came out in January, but she first came to prominence in Fifth Harmony, with whom she appeared on two albums and scored multiple top 40 hits.

“It boils down to not what we as an industry consider prominent, but what the public and the listener consider prominent,” says a label representative familiar with Cara’s situation. “That’s the debate in a lot of these cases.” That rep, who has been involved in the screening process, insists that despite the rules’ complexity, it is “certainly not arbitrary. It made me feel a lot better about the process, knowing there’s a really healthy debate and diligence -- brought up, gone over, brought up and gone over again -- until people feel they’ve got it right.”

Additional reporting by Melinda Newman.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 13 issue of Billboard.