The following Letter From the Editor by Billboard editorial director Bill Werde originally appeared in Billboard's 2014 Grammy Voter Guide which you can read or download in its entirety here. You can also purchase a physical copy of this special issue at the Billboard shop here.
A Call To Focus on the Music — For Music's Sake
As we head into the home stretch of what is sure to be another very strong broadcast for the Grammy Awards, I find myself dwelling on one of music’s last big televised shows, the American Music Awards. A strange pairing, perhaps, but bear with me a minute here.
I was on standby the night of the AMAs. A handful of morning news and entertainment shows let me know that they might tape segments with me discussing the show, depending on how it went.
And this is how it went: There were many really strong performances. Jennifer Lopez amazed with a tribute to Celia Cruz. Rihanna, now an elder stateswoman after seven albums, was presented with an icon award -- just 25, she recently tied Michael Jackson with her 13th No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, trailing only Mariah Carey and the Beatles on Billboard’s all-time list. Justin Timberlake proved he was as adept with a guitar as he is with his dance moves.
But to me, the story of the night was the new artists. Ariana Grande made a strong claim to being the young, vocal power to watch with a stripped-down performance of “Tattooed Heart.” Another newcomer, Imagine Dragons, riveted the theater with bombast and giant drums on a medley of their hits “Demons” and “Radioactive.” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were piped in live from Miami and not only delivered an excellent set but used an acceptance speech to talk about the sort of racial profiling that led to the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. And as always, Florida Georgia Line showed it knows how to bring the party -- this time with Nelly.
The strength of the show was validated by a 32% ratings hike from the previous year, including 82% among teen viewers, according to Nielsen.
That was a story I was excited to share with TV audiences the next morning! There is a new generation of artists that has emerged in the past year or so, and they are electrifying a precious new generation of music fans. The lifeblood of this industry is the musicians and performers who emerge to put their stamps on old forms, or sometimes completely flip the script. Think about how less dynamic music would seem today without this year’s Grammy nominees for best new artist: Kendrick Lamar, James Blake, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Kacey Musgraves and Ed Sheeran. It’s a category so strong that Billboard chart-topper Lorde, along with the aforementioned Grande, Imagine Dragons and Florida Georgia Line, were left to win Grammys in other categories or future years.
What could be a better story than that?
And yet, that night at the (highly entertaining) Scooter Braun/Republic Records after-party, I bumped into a producer for one of the shows that was contemplating coverage. And our conversation basically amounted to: “It was boring because nothing controversial happened.” He expected to shrink coverage of the AMAs. Before I went to sleep that night, I was told that none of the shows planning longer segments would be doing them.
It’s a sign of the times that celebrity trumps actual culture on TV. If Miley Cyrus cavorts with a foam finger, I’m a talking head on the topic for the next three months. If she does a superb job singing a great song like “Wrecking Ball,” producers start looking for B-roll of the Kardashians.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. But that doesn’t mean we must endure it in silence.
I refuse to accept that these new artists -- and credible, talented artists in general -- aren’t interesting to a large audience. Their songs have been downloaded and streamed billions of times. They have created the soundtrack to weddings and funerals, breakups and triumphs, falling in love and dancing with your children in the kitchen.
If you work in TV or know someone who does, I hope you’ll mention this to them. The almighty platform of TV isn’t created by some monolithic Borg, even if it seems that way at times. It’s created by a series of programming executives and producers who are people just like you and me. People who maybe need a reminder of the gift and the power they have -- that we all have -- to make the world a better, smarter, less cynical place within our own sphere of influence. There are plenty of TV viewers who want substance -- if not to dominate, then at least to offer the occasional counterpoint to sometimes saccharine, occasionally vicious coverage of stars. So, my media brethren and sistren, bloggers and tweeters and network TV producers alike: As we plan our Grammy coverage, can we pause just a moment and remember that these people we’ll all be watching are artists? Maybe, just maybe, we should focus on their art.