“When we announce the nominees I brace myself,” says Bill Freimuth, senior vp of awards at the Recording Academy. “But this year, of all the years I’ve been here, we got the fewest complaints.”
”It’s really not just a bunch of old white guys with cigars sitting at the Beverly Wilshire deciding who gets nominated and who wins,” he continues.
Even a cursory glance at this year’s Grammy nominees would suggest the music awards have transcended smoky back room conspiracy theories while striking a balance between commercial and critical considerations and muting much of the usual Grammy grousing. That, if you consider the awards’ long history of slights and snubs (see over the years: John Coltrane never winning in his lifetime, Blood, Sweat & Tears beating out the Beatles‘ Abbey Road, Jethro Tull‘s famed trumping of Metallica in the metal category, Milli Vanilli, etc.), is something of an accomplishment in itself.
One telling qualitative barometer of the year’s nominees is the overlap between the 44th annual Village Voice Pazz and Jop critic’s poll and the 58th Grammys. Fully 12 music academy noms are in the P&J top 20, including this year’s top nominee and Pazz & Jop winner Kendrick Lamar, as well as Courtney Barnett, Bjork, Kacey Musgraves, Jamie xx, J. Cole, Tame Impala, Jason Isbell, Alabama Shakes, Miguel, The Weeknd and Drake.
And if you adjust for the eligibility differences between the awards and the poll — the Grammys’ time frame runs from from Oct 1, 2014 to Sept. 30, 2015 — you can add D’Angelo, Caribou and Flying Lotus, for a total of 15 Grammy noms who also made the P&J top 20.
“This whole Grammy thing has been a surreal kind of thing to live through,” says best new artist nominee Barnett, whose album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (out on the aptly named indie Mom + Pop Records) was No. 2 on Pazz & Jop. “The last year has been one crazy thing after another,” the 28-year-old Australian says. “It’s usually these huge artists who get Grammys.”
Grammy surprise is sentiment shared by others nominees, too. “It was unexpected,” says Caribou (aka Dan Snaith), who was nominated for best dance/electronic album. “I definitely thought there was no chance at all I’d ever be nominated. I had assumed that the kind of music I make and the scale I do it at is off the Grammy’s radar.”
Caribou notes that he was also impressed by the quality of his fellow nominees in Jamie xx, Disclosure, the Chemical Brothers and Jack U. “I think the nominations in my category are more on the ball than I would expect from the Grammy nominations in the electronic category,” he says.
Philip Sherburne, an electronic dance music authority and writer, agrees that this year’s nods are “a lot better than in previous years,” but he is most impressed by a more obscure musician’s inclusion: “For me, the real bright spot in this year’s nominations was CFCF (aka Michael Silver)’s nomination in best remixed recording category. He’s such a talented and original producer; I have no idea how he snuck onto the ballot, but he absolutely deserves the recognition.”
Part of the reason behind this year’s Grammy improvements may stem from the Recording Academy, which upgraded its membership and increased outreach. Freimuth cites inter-departmental work groups between the awards department and member services, which for the first time attended key festivals and industry events together to interface with the industry, recruit new members and explain the process.
“At the Essence Festival we had our R&B and rap genre manager therem” Freimuth says. “At the AP Music Awards we had or our rock and metal genre manager. They go not only as part of the overall recruitment and registration effort but to lift the veil on the awards’ process and to make sure that people understand that voting and joining is really an important part of this.”
In the last few years the Recording Academy has instituted a re-qualification process requiring that its nearly 13,000 voters certify their continued participation in the music business every five years. Over time, the hope is that he initiative can help dampen generational biases that have led to accusations of a boomer myopia — whereby, for example, late-era Steely Dan beat out Radiohead and Eminem in 2001.
Freimuth also credits recent Recording Academy hires Laura Segura Mueller, senior managing director of membership, and Neda Azarfar, vp of marketing and communications, as instrumental in fomenting changes which included spearheading the work groups, getting out the vote and making the Grammys process more transparent.
The organization’s social media metrics would seem to support the new efforts’ success. Since March, the Grammys Twitter followers have risen 17% to 2.53 million, Instagram grew by a whopping 48% to 621,000 followers and Facebook likes rose 7% to nearly 3.9 million.
To be sure, there are still complaints as there likely always will be. “It breaks my heart that Kamasi Washington didn’t get nominated, and no one was doing it nearly as hard as he was last year,” says Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison), echoing a sentiment shared by many others who consider Washington’s ambitious triple album The Epic something of a masterpiece. (Several Grammy officials off the record acknowledged the oversight.) Carly Rae Jepson, too, whose album Emotion was roundly acclaimed, was also shut out this year.
And metal, too, has long been considered by many to be something of Grammy blind spot. “Everything interesting in metal is in the underground,” said a metal executive who spoke on the condition anonymity. He called this year’s nominees, which included Slipknot, Sevendust, Ghost, Lamb of God and August Burns Red, “not interesting or forward looking in any way.” “This year,” he continued, “metal magazines put their arms around bands like Horrendous, Tribulation and Deafheaven. The Grammys and metal have no business together, so it’s not like you could ever be a snob about their choices.”
To be certain, winnowing down those choices from 21,564 submissions to roughly 400 nominees in 83 categories, and then having 13,000 members vote for the four top categories and 20 additional award categories they are qualified for, is no easy task and inevitably makes for all sorts of unpredictability. What many may not realize is that the Grammy screening committees are filled with songwriters, artists, scholars, musicologists, journalists and label execs. Though the Grammys declined to name their expert industry participants, during the course of interviews for this story an unexpected and rather credible one revealed himself.
“I was part of the alternative committee,” says Flying Lotus, who this year received his first nomination as an artist for his song “Never Catch Me” (which was nominated in the best dance recording category), as well as a nod for his work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. “Basically I was there to listen to all the submissions and decide if it belonged in the alternative category and whether it was good or not and if it was alternative.
While FlyLo expressed dismay over his inclusion in the alternative category and believes dance and electronic need to be separate categories, he applauds the Grammy process and his experience on the selection committee.”I was so surprised at how knowledgeable all these people were about the music,” he says. “They knew everything. I’m a [music] head and I’m in there, and they were telling me about all the shit I need to check out and I’m like, ‘Damn, dude!'”
The musician, producer and Brainfeeder label principal attributes Grammy oversights in large measure to a lack of participation. “The truth is all the stuff that’s really dope is on the ballot,” he says. “Motherf—ers just got to vote, that’s what it really comes down to. A lot of people who complain don’t vote. They don’t have any kind of education on how the process works either, but it’s not very difficult to get involved. You have to do your part even if you think that no one cares what your opinion is. If everyone believes that, then yeah, Taylor Swift is going to win album of the year again.”