Grammy Preview: Can Newly Expanded Categories Heal the 'Step Up' Scars?

After the Grammys in January, The Recording Academy faced a moment of reckoning. At a time when the representation of women and people of color had become central to the national cultural conversation, both felt conspicuously absent at the show: Lorde, the only female album of the year nominee, was also that category’s only artist not asked to perform her own material; Alessia Cara was the only woman who won a solo trophy during the telecast; and Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar, album and record of the year nominees, lost out in both categories.

When, after the show, president/CEO Neil Portnow responded to the ensuing criticism by telling women artists in particular to “step up,” the backlash was swift. But the academy responded immediately. In May, it established a Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, which later invited 900 women and people of color under age 39 to join the roughly 13,000 current voting members for the 2019 show. And in June, it announced an expansion of the Big Four categories -- record of the year, album of the year, song of the year and best new artist -- from five ­nominee slots to eight.

That widening of the marquee fields is expected not only to boost diversity but to help level the playing field across genres. “This expansion clearly increases the likelihood of less obvious artists getting nominations,” says Steve Greenberg, president of S-Curve Records. “There’s a natural tendency to nominate the biggest hits, and sometimes less obvious choices just miss being nominated. This will correct that.” A major-label senior vp media and artist relations -- who, like many in the industry, is reluctant to openly discuss the Grammys and requested anonymity -- agrees. “There’s so much more music coming out now -- and coming out in a more egalitarian way,” says the executive. “So this is a bit of an equalizer.”

According to the academy’s senior vp awards Bill Freimuth, several genre categories receive fewer than 100 entries a year, from which five nominees are culled. The Big Four receive more than 1,000 each -- and have been narrowed down to the same number of nominees. This year, voters will still select their top five picks for the general field ballots, but the final vote will come down to eight nominees. “Labels and members who make the entries are excited by the notion that the door is opened a bit wider for something maybe considered an outlier due to genre,” says Freimuth.

Though the number of marketing companies that labels and managers use to target Grammy voters has risen in recent years, the categories’ expansion doesn’t seem likely to radically expand the scope of their work (yet). “The Grammys have always tried to encourage a culture of respectful campaigning,” says John Zarling, executive vp marketing and new business at Sony Music Nashville. “I don’t see expanded categories changing the [industry’s] indirect approach,” like running print and online for-your-consideration ads and placing artists at key industry events.

“The notion of people spending money at all is fairly recent,” adds Greenberg. Labels “will hold out hope for some records that might have been overlooked in the past, which is the whole point of the expansion.”

With the sheer number of releases each year on the internet and streaming platforms, some contend that eight nominations in the top categories still isn’t enough. “It’s a great start,” says First Access Entertainment’s Adam Mersel, who manages Bebe Rexha. “But I think more songs should be recognized -- like, 20. Pop, R&B/soul, country, dance and Latin, which is having such a moment, would then be more well represented in the mainstream.”

One veteran publicist wants to go yet another step further. “The album -- or, now, the streamed album -- is a true representation of what the artist is about now,” she says. “There were almost 900 submissions for album of the year [in 2017]. It would be great to see the album categories across all fields go to eight too. If a category gets more than 500 submissions, why not look at doing that?”