Veteran pop singer-songwriter Autumn Rowe recalls how she “smiled the entire day” when the Recording Academy announced the addition of a songwriter of the year, non-classical award in June. While producers have been honored with their own producer of the year, non-classical category dating back to 1975, recognition for songwriters for their full year’s body of work had yet to be seen in the Grammys’ 65-year history — and it’s happening at a crucial time in the music industry.
“Songwriters are at a critical point where we are working harder than ever and being valued the least when it comes to monetization,” says Rowe, an album of the year honoree at the 2022 Grammys thanks to her contributions as a featured artist, producer and songwriter to Jon Batiste’s winning We Are. “Although this award would’ve been appreciated sooner, it’s also somewhat perfect timing — we need everyone to rally behind and beside us advocating for the value we bring.”
The urgency of the category’s introduction is one understood by both Evan Bogart — chair of the Academy’s new Songwriters & Composers Wing who helped lead the charge in drafting the proposal for the new award and ensuring it passed — and by Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr., who also was a successful songwriter earlier in his career. “It’s something that has been talked about for as long as I can remember at the Academy — ‘acknowledging the craft of songwriting’ — [which is] obviously part of the bedrock of our whole music ecosystem,” says Mason.
The Academy has long acknowledged songwriters through the trophies for song-awarded categories, such as best rock song, best rap song and, of course, the all-genre song of the year going to the composers. In 2018, songwriters for albums nominated for album of the year were also added as honorees if they contributed to at least 33% of the project’s playing time, with that being expanded at the 2022 ceremony to include every credited songwriter of new material on an album.
So far, Mason and Bogart (who is also a songwriter and CEO of independent publisher Seeker Music) say the songwriting community has greeted the award with overwhelming excitement and positivity. But it’s possible some songwriters whose roles are not focused entirely (or even primarily) on their writing might have mixed emotions when they read the award’s fine print.
To qualify, writers “must have written a minimum of five songs in which they are credited ‘solely’ as a songwriter or co-writer” — further explaining that “songs in which the songwriter was also credited as a primary or featured artist, producer or any other supporting role do not qualify to achieve a minimum song threshold for consideration.” (If writers do have enough compositions to meet the threshold, they can submit an additional four songs for consideration in which they were credited as a producer or performer.)
In other words, songwriters who perform the majority of their compositions — like Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and Drake — would not be eligible for the award, unless they also had a minimum of five outside contributions for other performers. Similarly, writers who often produce or co-produce most of their compositions — like Jack Antonoff, Dan Nigro or Lin-Manuel Miranda — may also be ineligible, unless they had five songs they wrote or co-wrote but did not produce on.
Bogart explains that the award was designed in this way to ensure that the honor remained focused on songwriting and prevented big hybrid names from otherwise dominating the category. “We were able to strike the right balance and tone between people who are professional songwriters, who wake up every day and think about crafting songs for artists, and not just make this another award for a producer or an artist to win,” he says. “We wanted to really honor the people that the songwriting community would largely look at as songwriters first.”
However, some writers aren’t convinced this is a realistic view of their role in the current industry. “That feels like a very old-fashioned way of thinking,” says country songwriter-producer Shane McAnally, a three-time Grammy winner and one of Nashville’s preeminent hitmakers for the past decade-plus. “That in order to be recognized as a true songwriter, you should be sitting with a pen and paper and a single instrument somewhere ‘writing’ a song without technology or without influence with the artist. But the thing is, songs don’t get recorded that way anymore.”
The award might also present a challenge for Grammy viewers, who might not be immediately familiar with the award’s qualifications and end up incredulous over their favorite artist — or that artist’s most regular collaborators — being excluded. “The nominees will come out and some glaring omission will be there and people will go, ‘Why isn’t Brandi Carlile nominated?’ ” says McAnally. Mason says the Academy is aware of these concerns: “That’s something we’ll be working on with our comms team and awards team,” he says of ensuring the award has the right “messaging” for the average viewer.
Moving forward, the Academy will be flexible about the qualifications. “We want to service people the way they feel is right, not just the way we feel is right — and we’re a membership organization,” Mason says. “If people feel like, ‘This needs to be tweaked,’ we’ll keep looking at it.”
Adds Rowe: “I have no idea who will be nominated for this first year of the award, but I can say I will be watching and rooting because this is a win for us all.”