Should the Recording Academy allow free music to be considered for the Grammy Awards nominations? One fan started a petition on Change.org to ask the Recording Academy to do just that — and with 15,000 signatures as of press time and support from the likes of Chance the Rapper, the issue is quickly gaining credibility.
For years, the Grammy nomination process has been guided by two main principles: first, that recordings be released within a given time frame (for next year’s awards, music released between Oct. 1, 2015 and Sept. 30, 2016 are eligible). Secondly, to quote from its own site, recordings must “be commercially released in general distribution in the United States, i.e. sales by label to a branch or recognized independent distributor, via the Internet, or mail order/retail sales for a nationally marketed product. Recordings must be available for sale from any date within the eligibility period through at least the date of the current year’s voting deadline (final ballot).”
That puts the Grammy nomination eligibility guidelines at odds with the direction in which the music industry has been moving of late, as streaming exclusives and free releases gain traction as viable release strategies. Chance the Rapper, who retweeted the current petition, is squarely at the center of that debate. His first two solo projects, 2012’s 10Day and 2013’s Acid Rap, were free through his Soundcloud account, while last summer’s Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment album, Surf, on which Chance served as the main vocalist, was released as a free album in the iTunes Store. His long-held assertion that he will never make fans pay for his music, coupled with the upcoming release of his third solo project Chance 3 on May 13, brings the current question to the forefront.
And there’s little question that Chance — who has largely rejected industry norms throughout his career to date — wants Grammy recognition. His verse on Kanye West‘s “Ultralight Beam” implies as much: “He said let’s do a good ass job with Chance 3 / I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard / That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet.”
The petition, started by Max Krasowitz, characterizes the current nomination process as the Academy punishing artists “for making their music available to everyone, rich or poor.” It continues, “It’s obvious that these artists are making their music more accessible to people who deserve it even if they can’t afford it, as well as decreasing pirating and illegally downloading music. Not all artists should be forced to release their music for free, but the ones who do should not be punished for doing so.”
The language of the Recording Academy’s requirements also raises questions beyond the eligibility of album-quality mixtape releases, particularly in the definition of a “commercial” release in “general distribution” and specifically in its application for a streaming-only album, such as the release of West’s The Life of Pablo. Initially released for sale in the early hours of Feb. 14, 2016, Pablo was pulled down quickly afterwards and remained available only as a streaming exclusive on Tidal, a situation that would last for six weeks as West tinkered with its final mixes and lyrics, before being released for sale April 1. If a streaming-only exclusive can be considered a commercial release — even if it’s not for sale, it is still generating revenue — then which “version” of Pablo would be eligible for nomination?
When reached about the eligibility requirements, a rep from the Recording Academy told Billboard that “the awards process is reviewed and refined on an annual basis.” After publication of this story, the Grammys issued a statement to Billboard clarifying that while free albums and streaming-only albums would not be eligible under the rules in place for last year’s awards, there is an annual review process that takes place after each year’s presentation that determines any changes that will be made. That process has not been completed yet — the awards telecast is typically held in late January or early February — which means the criteria for the 2017 nominations is not yet set in stone.
“The Grammy Awards process is fluid and, like music, continues to evolve,” the statement says. “As a peer-voted award, the awards process is also peer-determined. Each spring, music creators in the community work with Recording Academy staff to prepare and submit proposals, which are then reviewed by the Board and announced shortly thereafter. Rules for the 59th Annual Grammy Awards will be announced this June.”
Updated, 3:21 p.m. ET, Mar. 9: A statement from the Grammys provided to Billboard following the initial publication of this article was added.