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At the Grammys, It’s Not Just Indies vs. Majors, It’s Big Names vs. No-Names

A recognizable name on a small label was a successful equation at this year’s Grammy Awards. Although major labels won the majority of the big categories at this year’s Grammys and were able to beat smaller labels in head-to-head matchups, independent labels came away with dozens of awards.

Grammy Awards 2015

“We actually do pretty well,” says Rich Bengloff, the president of the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM). He points to wins in previous years by Bon Iver and Esperanza Spalding and notes that independent labels won album of the year every year from 2009 to 2013. (Adele‘s 21, the 2012 winner, was released by XL Recordings in Europe and licensed to Sony Music in the United States.) In fact, independent labels have maintained their share of Grammy wins — hovering between 44 percent and 50 percent — since the Recording Academy cut 30 categories in 2011, many of them in categories considered the domain of independent label releases.

To win a Grammy on an independent label, it helps to be an offspring of reggae legend Bob Marley. When nominated for best reggae album, a Marley has won a Grammy every time since 1998. Across nine wins in 18 years, all Marley winners were independent releases except the first two: Ziggy Marley & the Melody MakersFallen Is Bablyon on Elektra Records in 1998 and Damien Marley‘s Halfway Tree on Motown Records in 2002. The only way a Marley could lose was to another Marley. In 2010, Julien Marley‘s Awake lost to Stephen Marley‘s Mind Control.

Grammy Breakdown by Label: Majors Sweep Major Awards, Indies Have Strong Collective Showing

Latin jazz legend Ruben Blades‘ name may have carried weight with Grammy voters. Blades’ album Tangos was one of three independent label albums that won a Grammy when competing against four major-label titles. Tangos, released on Sunnyside Records, won best Latin pop album over two Sony Music Latin releases and two Universal Music Latin titles.

“Name recognition goes a really long way,” says Ken Shipley of the Numero Group, a Chicago-based label that scored a nomination for best boxed or limited edition package, for Cities of Darkscorch, and best album notes, for Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound. Although the label lost to more recognizable names — one winner was on Jack White‘s Third Man Records, the other was a John Coltrane album — Shipley says he “wouldn’t take anything away from [recognizable] people who are nominated. If you’re going up against Paul McCartney, you’re probably going to lose.”

Bengloff doesn’t give it too much weight. “Name recognition probably counts, yes. I don’t think it counts much. How else could Bon Iver [best new artist in 2012] and Esperanza Spalding [best new artist in 2011] have won?”

Label size appears to have mattered in 2015. An analysis of 2015 Grammy winners in 50 main recorded music categories shows independent labels didn’t always fare well against major labels. In the 12 categories in which just one or two of the five nominees was a major-label artist or release, the major won six times, or 50 percent of the time. If every album had an equal chance to win, major labels would have won 3.2 times rather than six times. When two of the five nominees were independent labels, a major label won six out of nine times, negligibly better than 5.4 wins under even odds.

Ironically, independent labels fared best when they were the most outnumbered. In the 12 instances a category had four major-label nominees and one independent-label nominee, the independent-label nominee won three times. That 25 percent success rate is slightly better than the 20 percent even-odds rate. Maybe Grammy voters like to see an underdog win.

Or maybe Grammy voters went with a recognizable name. Winner of best dance/electronic album, Aphex Twin‘s Syro on Warp Records, has not sold well — about 30,000 to date, according to Nielsen Music — but might have benefited from the artist’s two-decade-long career. The other independent that beat four major-label titles was Frozen for best compilation soundtrack. The Disney Records release benefited from a smash hit, “Let It Go,” and massive sales that reached 3.9 million through Feb. 8.

The one sure way an independent album couldn’t beat a major-label release was not to get a nomination. That happened in nine of the 50 major categories, including best pop vocal album, won by Sam Smith‘s In the Lonely Hour, and album of the year, won by Beck‘s Morning Phase.

Bengloff would have preferred a nomination for the latter category. “Do I think we should have got a best album nomination? Yes, but there are only five.”