Despite the ongoing downward trend of TV ratings and pressures on the music industry, the Grammys are bigger than ever. Last year's ceremony, the 54th in the Recording Academy's history, drew nearly 40 million viewers to CBS, according to Nielsen, making it the second-most-watched Grammys of all time. Only the 1984 show, a Thriller-era coronation for the late Michael Jackson, attracted a larger audience.
Getting to 40 million was partly the result of solemn circumstances -- vocal icon and six-time Grammy winner Whitney Houston was found dead little more than 24 hours before the show's live broadcast, prompting large numbers of mournful music fans to tune in to commemorate the loss. But it was also the product of a deliberate promotional strategy that leaned heavily on social media, capitalizing on digital platforms to push an upward-sloping ratings trend skyward.
"To be a meaningful music event or music brand and not embrace social media in a very deep and organic way . . . is a big mistake," says Evan Greene, chief marketing officer at the Academy. "And I don't mean just doing social media for the sake of doing social media. I mean making social media and shareability a central part of the communication strategy. That's really what it's about for us."
Seeking to shake its reputation as an organization that had become staid and retrograde, the Academy began its social media makeover in 2010. That year, a user-powered, YouTube-centric promotional campaign branded "We're All Fans" helped the ceremony net its highest ratings in seven years.
Every Grammys since has been marked by a single unifying theme tied to a robust digital campaign. In 2011, the theme was "Music Is Life, Life Is Music," and online fans were invited to create a virtual map with location tags where their favorite music memories took place. In 2012, for the theme "We Are Music," users were empowered to create their own shareable audiovisual experience using songs of their choice and their own photos.
"The two universal truths out there with regard to social media are that people want discovery and they want to be part of a community -- and that's exactly what the Grammys offer," Greene says of the Academy's social media strategy. "If we do our job, more and more people will want to join the conversation."
For this year, the Academy and TBWA Chiat/Day, the advertising agency behind iconic ads for Apple and the Academy's agency of record since 2008, have embarked on their most ambitious collaboration yet. Peeling back the artifice of the awards themselves, the new campaign, dubbed "#TheWorldIsListening," is its own democratic platform. Amateur musicians from around the world have been invited to upload their own recordings to a special site on SoundCloud where viewers can go to discover and share what they like. TBWA has tapped music superstars like Linkin Park and the Black Keys to play along with the game -- they'll share their favorite tracks from the program with millions of their followers on Facebook and Twitter, potentially creating the next generation of stars in the process.
TBWA creative directors Patrick Condo and Bob Rayburn say #TheWorldIsListening was partly designed to reflect changing paradigms in the music industry. "It's not a new thought, but the Internet has really taken some power away from labels, from radio stations, from record stores and allowed people to both discover and share artists," Condo says. "A year ago Carly Rae Jepsen was in her bedroom playing into a webcam, and now she's a Grammy nominee. That all happened because a famous fan [Justin Bieber] tweeted her out."
With #TheWorldIsListening, the Academy sought to celebrate the journey of artists at all levels, as well as what Condo calls "the down and dirty love of music."
"You can be toiling in your bedroom, completely super unknown, never played a show before other than in front of your webcam, and you can still be found that way if you keep trying, keep playing, keep practicing and keep sharing," he says. "Somebody might find you."
Shining a light on artists at the earliest stage of their career is novel territory for the august Academy, and it's an open question as to what effect the tactic will have on viewership. Both Greene and Condo acknowledge that a clean line can't always be drawn between a particular campaign and a juicy score in the ratings, but the hope is to keep the audience engaged.
"It's hard to say definitively what impact social media has had from a percentage-point perspective," Greene says. "But we've seen a very significant increase in conversation around Grammys, in sentiment toward Grammys and in engagement with key influencers."
Condo concurs. "You see a lot of brands in your waking life as an advertising guy that just want to constantly tell people what they are. It's this one-way dialogue, this monologue aimed at the consumer," he says. "What we've found is that when you open it up and you have a conversation and you allow people to help cultivate and share and invest in your brand, they feel a lot more loyal to it."
After all the preshow buzz, the online conversation gets the hottest on awards night. In the 12 hours surrounding last year's event, the word "Grammy" was mentioned more than 5 million times on Twitter alone. Activity on the social network peaked after Adele took home the statue for album of the year, rocketing to 10,901 tweets per second.
Twitter has become increasingly invested in the Grammys through the years, following the lead of its users who want to engage with major live events on TV. Last year, the social network recruited artists both at the ceremony (Coldplay, Katy Perry) and at home (St. Vincent, the Wanted) to "live tweet" the proceedings.
"Not only do fans and artists at home love watching the Grammys, they love to participate," says Tatiana Simonian, head of music industry relations for Twitter. "[The live-tweeters] brought our users closer to music's biggest moments, in real time, as they happened."
Of course, Twitter's love for the Grammys hasn't gone unrequited. The very name of the Academy's campaign this year is tailor-made for the social network. "We're not aware of any other major national campaign that has used a hashtag as its tag line," Greene says.
On top of that the Grammys also kicked off a social campaign on Dec. 18 with 10 pairs of female artists, ranging from Kelly Clarkson and Reba McEntire to Miranda Lambert and Sheryl Crow, interviewing each other through tweets.
On Feb. 10, the world will be listening; but, more importantly, it'll be sharing, too.