How the Grammys Work
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The Annual Grammy Awards for music came and went two Sundays ago and the eternal topic of who decided who would win and how they were chosen came up again. It seems that this decision has become more and more controversial in recent years and this year could possibly be the most blatant instance of questionable choices in a long time. It is a demonstrable fact that no matter who wins the award somebody is going to be disappointed. We have seen this in the election and the Super Bowl in recent months. Fans get so invested in a group or artist that they follow that they can’t possibly understand how someone else could be considered more worthy. Just look at Kanye West’s reaction to Taylor Swift’s win at the Video Music Awards in 2009. But there is a logical explanation, if not one that would appease the fans of the non-winner, for the process of determining who will win an award.
The first point to acknowledge is that the Grammy’s are an industry award, not a popularity contest. What does that mean? It means that the nomination and winners in each category are determined by the members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). These are people who are involved in the music industry and who pay a membership fee to be considered members of the Academy, not people who like the artist’s work on emotional grounds which would be more akin to the People’s Choice Awards.
Each year the 15,000 members of the academy, as well as record companies, are asked to submit the names of artists they feel would be worthy of receiving a Grammy, which is usually about 20,000 entries each year. The Academy collects the names of all of the submissions in each of the categories. This can be, and generally is, a large and varied list of artists. Some logical for inclusion and some questionable. But since they were submitted by members of the Academy they must be considered.
These nominees are then screened by a group of about 350 Academy members to determine if they meet the criteria to be considered for the award in their category. This decision has nothing to do with the artistic merit of the recorded work, just whether the artist is eligible for inclusion in the category they are nominated in. This winnows down the list somewhat, but it is still too large. Sometimes this leads to controversy, such as when Jethro Tull was nominated, and eventually won the Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental of 1988 over AC/DC, Iggy Pop, Jane’s Addiction and Metallica. Few people, including the members of Jethro Tull, thought that Jethro Tull fit in this category, but they won the award. Alas, the screening committee felt that they met the qualifications for the category.
The next step in the process is that the Academy send the list of submissions to the members for a first round of voting. This further reduces the number of nominees. Once these votes are tabulated, the Academy sends out a final ballot to its members. The results of this final round of voting determines the winner and the four runners-up that make the top five in each category you see during the telecast.
So how is it that Adele wins Record of the Year over Beyoncé? More votes, plain and simple. More voting members felt Adele’s album was better than Beyoncé’s. Was it the correct result? To those who voted for Adele’s record it was. After all, she did sell more records than Beyoncé, make no mistake, Adele’s 25 is a Grammy worthy album. What about the artistic merit of Lemonade? Great album but that wasn’t what the members of the Academy was voting on, entirely. Now an argument could be made that the Academy is skewed toward older (and whiter) members and tastes in music. There is probably some truth in that. Some in the younger, more urban music industry don’t vote for the Grammy’s, feeling like it wouldn’t make a difference anyway.
But like many instances in our society the best way to make change is to affect it from the inside. It is the same situation that happened in 1988 with Jethro Tull and Metallica. The established members of the Academy were unfamiliar with (and possibly hesitant of) Metallica so they went with what they knew, and Jethro Tull has what may be the most anachronistic Grammy ever. But as time went on and new members joined the Academy true metal artists started to win the metal Grammy. If Beyoncé is to ever get the Grammy for Best Album (after being denied three times) it will require those who champion her effort to do it the old fashioned way. At the ballot box.