Commentary: Why the Grammy changes still aren’t enough

This morning, the Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow declared that slicing 31 categories from the Grammy Awards did not mean they were cutting out any genres.  And for the most part it looks like he was right. But that doesn”t mean the music industry is going to be happy.

When the Grammys started in 1959, they gave out golden gramophones in 28 categories. By this year, that had swelled to 109, although the general public was only aware of the dozen or so handed out during the prime-time ceremony. The rest are given out in a pre-telecast. Those awards, while they include many mainstream fields, also go to the niche genres, such as best Native American or Hawaiian music.

To clarify before we go further, the Recording Academy handed out 109 Grammys  this year in 30 fields. Each field basically represents a musical genre, such as classical or rock or alternative and each field could have as few as one category or as many as nine under its banner. 

In some ways, the sheer number of Grammys handed out had begun to diminish the prestige of the award (although certainly not to anyone who”s ever won one), and yet at the same time, the Grammys truly wanted to honor all different types of music no matter how out of the mainstream. Let”s put it this way, Jimmy Sturr still hasn”t gotten over the Grammys eliminating the polka category a few years ago. But they may have gone too far with some of these changes.

[More after the jump…]

Starting in 2009, the awards and nominations committee decided to look at the total system and bring more parity to it instead of changing one field or category at a time.

The most obvious change is that instead of offering male and female awards in several fields, the Grammys will now offer a best solo performance. Therefore, unlike every other musical award show and every movie award show with their separate actor and actress designations, solo male and female performers will now be competing against each other.

For example,  instead of offering best female and best male pop vocal performance categories, they have been combined into best pop solo performance. However, also thrown into that category is the best pop instrumental performance category which catered largely to smooth jazz artists (although it was increasingly run over by pop artists). We”ll add that without their own category, those artists can kiss their chances goodbye as they aren”t going to be able to compete against pop artists like Pink, Lady Gaga and John Mayer.  Certainly to assuage the smooth jazz constituency, the Grammys have kept the best pop instrumental album category alone.

Similarly, and it”s certainly fair, the Grammys have folded best rock instrumental, best rock performance by duo or group with vocals and best rock solo vocal performance into an omnibus category called best rock performance. They had done away with best male and female rock solo vocal performances a few years ago when it turns out that the only solo female rock singer in the world appears to be Melissa Etheridge.  They also did so with the best hard rock/metal performance category. In other words, we”ll see the number of instrumentals on rock records drop to zero if they were doing it in a bid to get a Grammy nod.

In the R&B field, even more belt tightening took place as best R&B performance by a duo or group with vocals gets lumped in with best female, best male and best urban/alternative into a new best R&B performance category. We expect a little uproar over that one, although not from the R&B duo or groups— quick, try to name one. If any genre has been dominated by solo artists in recent years, it”s R&B.  However, the urban/alternative category was a nice place for artists like Janelle Monae.  We”re guessing this was all a negotiating point with the R&B community as best contemporary R&B album and best R&B album categories remain separate.

And so it goes throughout the 30 fields. For example, no more solo male and female in country either; the boys and girls will be competing against each other. In some ways, this move is to be applauded: why should men and women be separated when it comes to who is putting out the best music?  However, we would expect no other awards show– music or otherwise– to follow suit. Putting “Grammy-award winning artist” in front of an act’s name is still a major calling card and we’re surprised the major labels accepted this change.

In the main, as I mentioned, the public won”t notice, but this is horrible news for the small labels that specialized in specific niches and were able to milk some mileage out of having their artists win Grammys. For example, the best Hawaiian, best Native American and best Zydeco/Cajun music categories have all been combined into Best Regional Roots Music Album. We remember the struggle the Native American music community went through to get their own category a few years ago and they were filled with such pride to have their own. This will be a devastating blow to no longer have a home of their own, as it will be for the Hawaiian and Cajun music communities. This could have also been a function of not receiving enough submissions in each individual genre to sustain their own stand-alone categories as the Recording Academy has upped the number of individual entries needed to continue with the typical five nominations per category from 25 to 40.

These changes, while painful, make sense for the most part, and are fair and it seems like the Recording Academy tried for parity among all genres. But did they go far enough in revamping a system that many still feel is antiquated and rewards artists long past their commercial, if not artistic, prime.

For example, today”s announcement didn”t address some of the glaring issues still facing the Grammys, such as requiring that an artist put out their first album in order to be eligible for first new artist. For example, this year, Bruno Mars received seven nominations, second only to Eminem, but wasn”t eligible for best new artist because his full album didn”t drop until after the eligibility period.

What do you think of the changes?