When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee meets in New York every September, they nibble on sushi and Carnegie Deli sandwiches, and decide which artists to place on that year's election ballot. The committee members -- successful musicians, record executives, writers and historians -- remain cordial even when they disagree, with one exception: the annual arguments that raged about Kiss.
Whenever Kiss was mentioned, "there were fireworks," says one attendee. Several people in the room recall hearing the phrase "over my dead body." Some on the committee see membership in the Rock Hall as the ultimate stamp of credibility; they viewed Kiss, a popular and crass band, not with skepticism, but with disgust. Dave Marsh, an author and committee member, said Kiss embodies "music at its most mercantile and shallow." Then Tom Morello, from Rage Against the Machine, joined the committee as part of an effort to make it younger and more diverse (he’s African-American). At his first meeting, in 2013, he launched into what one witness calls "a rant" in praise of Kiss. He persuaded the committee to nominate the band, and a few months later, welcomed Kiss into the Hall of Fame.
On April 18, at Public Hall in Cleveland, the Hall will welcome eight new acts, including Green Day, Lou Reed and Joan Jett, who will join the pantheon of previous inductees, from Elvis Presley to Nirvana. This year marks the 30th ceremony, and people inside the Hall think the induction of Kiss (as well as the 2012 inductions of Rush and Heart) signals the start of a new era, short on consensus honorees, as the institution faces increasingly difficult choices between commerce and art, theater and substance, critical acclaim and massive success.
Artists become eligible for nomination 25 years after their first recording, which means the Hall will now begin considering acts from the 1990s, an era when traditional rock all but disappeared, and music splintered into subgenres. If significant pioneers like The Stooges (inducted on their eighth nomination) and the Sex Pistols (who failed on their first five ballots) had trouble getting inducted, how much harder will it be for Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and other recent pop stars? "It was easy enough in the beginning," says Jann Wenner, 69, chairman of the Rock Hall Foundation and founder, editor and publisher of Rolling Stone. "But at this point, all the clear, obvious people have been inducted, and it comes down to personal taste."
There are significant benefits to induction, both emotional and financial: Sales of Fleetwood Mac albums increased 600 percent when it entered the Hall in 1998, and after their inductions, Wanda Jackson and Roy Orbison had lion-in-winter renaissances. It’s difficult to predict the Hall’s future decisions, however, because the committee deliberates behind a moated wall. In 2011, Jon Landau, 67 -- who manages Bruce Springsteen and chairs the nominating committee -- told The New York Times, "We’ve done a good job of keeping the proceedings nontransparent. It all dies in the room." When Billboard approached committee members for interviews, even people known for being outspoken turned silent. A prominent music publicist said his artists were "all scared to talk," even though several "have hard-ons for the Hall. They’re afraid of not getting inducted."
Eventually, 10 current and former committee members agreed to talk, either on background or not for attribution, and a clear picture of the future emerged: If the electorate doesn’t continue to change, the Hall could turn into a high-tech Madame Tussauds.
Currently, 41 VIPs make up the nominating committee. During meetings, each can nominate up to three acts. After much discussion, members vote by secret ballot for 10 favorites. The 15 acts with the most votes are placed on another ballot, which is sent to a larger panel of voters -- at last count, there were 810, including all Hall members. (Disclosure: I’ve been a voter for several years, and have written for Rolling Stone.) The ballots are returned and counted. The seven acts with the most votes are inducted, though the board of directors has the discretion to eliminate qualifiers with the least support.
Because there’s little transparency in the process, conspiracy theories abound, especially ones that portray Wenner as a puppet master. The Hall of Fame Foundation’s two staff members work in the offices of Wenner Media, and the foundation pays rent to Wenner Media for the space it uses. "Jann has completely taken over," says a disillusioned committee member, pointing to Wenner’s influence on board membership and foundation employees. "He doesn’t try to rig anything, but it’s the Jann Wenner show." Though Wenner is not on the nominating committee, it is stacked with current and former Rolling Stone writers and editors, which perpetuates the magazine’s vision of rock’s Great Works. "I understand the basis of [the conspiracy theories]," says Wenner, "but I don’t care about the speculation. After doing this for 30 years, nobody’s ever found any credible charge of chicanery or undue influence."
The Hall’s mission is to honor "musical excellence and influence," says Joel Peresman, president/CEO of the Hall of Fame Foundation, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) charity. Notions of excellence are subjective, and the objective standard of record sales (often cited by advocates of The Monkees, Chicago and Janet Jackson, among others) doesn’t sway the Hall -- popularity "can be a marker of artistic excellence," says Wenner, but it’s not a primary consideration. Historically, the Hall (just like Rolling Stone) has favored earnest, guitar-based rock acts over top 40 stars. Committee members "see themselves as keepers of the flame of integrity," says an insider.
The committee has often been justly criticized for being homogenous -- "too old, too male, too white, too rich," says a former member. There are six women and seven people of color among the 41 members. In the last decade, "we’ve made a conscious effort to diversify it," says Wenner. In 2006, several stalwarts were dethroned: "I was fired for being too old. That’s what I was told," says one. (Wenner counters that anyone who was kicked off "wasn’t being useful.") Younger members have been added, including Morello, 50, and The Roots drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, 44.
Morello’s successful advocacy for Kiss shows how influential new members have been. In his first year, Questlove pushed pop act Hall & Oates onto the ballot, after others had tried and failed; "he worked the room like Frank Underwood works Congress," one member says. And yet, the source adds, the balance of power is still with the elders: "Like anything boomer-centric, people are going to hold on to it as if their lives depend on it. You’ll have to pry the Hall of Fame from their cold, dead fingers."
Many committee members expressed frustration with the larger body of voters, who are more conservative and usually overlook rappers. One year, LL Cool J was the artist who garnered the most votes in the nominating committee meeting; he’s been on the ballot three times, and voters have passed over him each time. "The nominating committee is a more educated, elite and sophisticated group of people," says Wenner. "The broader voters are more like me -- I loved a certain period of music, but I’m not deeply committed to knowing everything that’s going on."
The committee’s track record in recognizing such rock ’n’ roll offshoots as hip-hop, metal and alternative rock has been spotty. They view The Cure (eligible since 2003) and Depeche Mode (since 2006) as weird outcasts from England who wear mascara, rather than post-punk and electronic pioneers who still headline festivals and sell out arenas. "You and I will die before those groups are in the Hall of Fame," an insider predicts.
Gene Simmons of Kiss sums up the frequent criticism that the Hall neglects hard-rock and prog-rock bands. "Patti Smith is in before Deep Purple?" he exclaims. "Talking Heads, but not Yes? It started as a great idea, but it has become a sham."
There’s an ironic, boomerang effect to the Hall’s skepticism of popular bands, from Depeche Mode to Journey: Both the museum and the telecast benefit from having more popular acts. HBO’s initial airing of the 2014 ceremony, featuring Kiss, Hall & Oates and Nirvana, averaged 918,000 viewers, according to Nielsen data -- a huge gain over 2013 (593,000) and a far cry from 2009 to 2011, when the broadcast, on Fuse, didn’t even meet Nielsen’s minimum reporting threshold. "The average age of Fuse viewers was 25, and this is a show that was honoring The Platters," says a prominent TV executive.
To imagine how the Hall will react when it begins to scrutinize bands from the ’90s and beyond, it’s instructive to consider the musicians being inducted this month. Of the six acts in the performer category, only Green Day is contemporary. Two are being inducted for their ’70s music (Reed, Bill Withers), two debuted in the early ’80s (Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts), and voters reached back to the ’60s for The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which had been eligible since 1989. The Hall had a chance to elect some great ’80s acts -- Nine Inch Nails, The Smiths, Whitney Houston, Duran Duran, The Replacements and N.W.A -- but punted. The distant past is always a safe place for the Hall to revisit.
This article first appeared in the April 18 issue of Billboard.