The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made a bold move last December that the Recording Academy would be wise to emulate: They publicly announced “shortlists” in nine of their 24 categories.
On Dec. 17, 2018, the Oscars announced shortlists of between seven and 15 semifinalists in nine categories. They announced 15 semifinalists for original song, original score and documentary feature; 10 for documentary short subject, animated short film, live action short film and visual effects; nine for foreign language film; and seven for makeup & hairstyling.
They also revealed the number of submissions in seven of those categories. (They didn’t reveal the number of entries for visual effects and makeup & hairstyling.)
Because the Oscars let film fans peek behind the curtain a bit, they were rewarded with stories in countless media outlets. This served to put the focus on Oscar more than a month before the nominations were announced on Jan. 22, 2019.
The Oscars seem to understand that transparency is a virtue; that fans want to know — and have a right to know — how the process works and how the races are shaping up.
The early release of information last year meant that, for example, the writers of 15 best song candidates got an early Christmas present, while the writers of the 75 other eligible songs were informed that this was not going to be their year. They got the bad news five weeks before Nominations Day, so they got their disappointment out of the way early.
The Grammys have tended to be more secretive over the years. Since 1995, the nominees in the Big Four categories (album, record and song of the year plus best new artist) have been determined by a Nominations Review Committee. This committee meets to select the finalists they deem most worthy from lists of the 20 entries in each of those categories that received the most support from rank-and-file voting members. (At least that’s how the Recording Academy describes the process.)
The committee was put in place by the Academy’s former President/CEO Mike Greene after there was criticism in the industry that the 1994 nominees were “out-of-touch” with the most vital currents in contemporary music. Tony Bennett‘s MTV Unplugged won album of the year, and The 3 Tenors in Concert 1994 was nominated, while such albums as Pearl Jam‘s Vs., Soundgarden‘s Superunknown, Green Day‘s Dookie, Hole‘s Live Through This, Boyz II Men‘s II and Vince Gill‘s When Love Finds You weren’t nominated in that category.
Change was evident the very next year when the album of the year nominees included Pearl Jam‘s Vitalogy (Grammy voters had rarely embraced harder-edged rock) and Joan Osborne‘s Relish (a comparatively modest hit which had only reached No. 46 on the Billboard 200 by the end of 1995, when the committee met).
Neil Portnow, who succeeded Greene as president/CEO in 2002, kept the Nominations Review Committee in place throughout his 17-year tenure.
But the Recording Academy has never publicly revealed the recordings, songs and new artists that were on those “shortlists” that went to the Nominations Review Committee. Now that the Academy has new leadership, in the form of Deborah Dugan, its first female president/CEO, it should ask itself a simple question: “Why not?”
It’s true that the nine categories in which the Oscars revealed the shortlists last year were, for the most part, secondary categories. They didn’t reveal the shortlists in their Big Four categories: best picture, best actress, best actor and best director. But, after a successful launch, they may expand the number of categories in which they reveal their shortlists. And even if they don’t, the Grammys can build on what the Oscars have done and take the idea even further.
I’m not the first Billboard writer to call for more transparency from the Grammys. Nearly five years ago, Jason Lipshutz, now Billboard‘s senior director, music, wrote: “Whereas Oscar season is defined by months of jockeying for nomination consideration, public and private arguments about what will and should win best picture, and months of multiplex visits to make sure that you, the dutiful viewer, have watched as many nominated films as possible, the Grammy Awards just… sort of… come and go.
“…There’s a level of investment in the major Oscar categories that does not exist, and may never exist, with the top trophies at the Grammys….The Grammys could take a major cue from the Oscars and put more stock in the nomination process, so that we obsess over which songs and albums could make the respective shortlists months in advance of their unveiling, and what nominations mean for the legacy of those projects.”
Additional questions Dugan might ask are: “What would be the harm in letting people know what was on the shortlists?” “We’re proud of our process, our membership and our committees, so why not be more open about it?” and “The Oscars moved to transparency. Why are so we so secretive?”