The Recording Academy would like to make one thing perfectly clear: The success of Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book — which, in May, became the first streaming-only album to chart on the Billboard 200 — did not play a role in the academy’s decision to make records released through the platform eligible for Grammy Awards consideration. By the time a Change.org petition lobbying for the rule change amassed 40,000 signatures, it was already a done deal.
Although the eligibility revision was announced June 16, nearly a month after Coloring Book debuted on Apple Music, academy executives say it was introduced in March and ratified internally in May, two years after members first proposed allowing “free” recordings into the Grammy sweepstakes.
“It’s important to note that we didn’t make this change for any particular artist because we felt, ‘Oh, this artist is not going to be eligible and that’s going to make us look bad,’ ” Recording Academy senior vp awards Bill Freimuth tells Billboard. “It’s really more about trying to stay ahead of changes in a very dynamic industry.”
According to Freimuth and other academy sources, a rule change was first proposed in spring 2014. But it wasn’t until a year later that a subcommittee of digital industry players was formed to draft the version that was ratified.
Grammy eligibility now extends specifically to albums streamed on Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music and Amazon, which brings into the competitive mix Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, by far the biggest release to qualify under these rules. (West is selling Pablo as a $20 download on his site, which on its own would not satisfy academy rules about commercial ubiquity.)
Also presumably qualifying: Frank Ocean’s Apple-exclusive streaming video album Endless — although that odd, contract-fulfilling blip in his catalog likely will be ignored in favor of Blonde, the separate album Ocean put up for sale everywhere a week after its release.
Ocean’s streaming-only Endless album and West’s The Life of Pablo will be eligible for Grammy consideration under The Recording Academy’s recent rule change.Courtesy Photo
Right now, says Freimuth, “it appears that there are very few things that are available only through streaming. The vast majority of people want to monetize any way they can, and if you can pay your 40 bucks to TuneCore and get [an album] distributed everywhere, why not do that?”
It turns out Chance jumped the gun when he tweeted in June that the Grammy rule change would affect “all the SoundCloud albums that may now be recognized for excellence.” SoundCloud is not among the big five streaming services counted by the Grammys.
For a recording to be eligible, “it has to be on a full-catalog, audio-only subscription service,” and the service itself at least a year old, says Freimuth. “Though we didn’t know this was going to be the case, it turns out that gives us a year to examine what we’re going to do about the SoundCloud Go and YouTube Red audio-only subscription services,” which debuted, respectively in October 2015 and March.
Streaming, in any case, is how most Grammy voters will hear the nominees. From the time the first ballot goes out in mid-October through the close of voting a month later, would-be nominees can post their recordings on the members-only Grammy PRO website, though typically only more obscure independent artists do.
“If Joe Smith from Poughkeepsie has something he wants to get noticed for best improvised jazz solo, he can post it there,” says Freimuth. “I don’t think any [voter] is going to have too much trouble finding an Adele record if they need to hear that.”
Once nominations are announced Dec. 6, the finalists will be cleared by labels and music publishers and streamed on a different section of the PRO site.
Unlike the Academy Awards, the CD equivalent of a “screener” is not sent out, partly “because that would get very expensive when there are 13,000 voters,” and partly because the academy balks at sharing those 13,000 names.
“Before my time, we had a partnership with a service where voters could purchase LPs at a substantial discount,” recalls Freimuth with a laugh, “and a lot of folks, I’ve heard, were sad to see that go away.”