2016 certainly had its ups and downs, but it was extremely kind to the music world. Interestingly enough, in a world dominated by hip-hop and pop, different “underground” rock bands started to emerge from the basement and take over our stages and Spotify playlists. Our list of 20 best rock albums of 2016 was incredibly diverse, representing bands and performers ranging from indie to emo to hardcore punk. Many rock albums even made it onto our overall best albums of 2016 list.
Relatively unknown artists like Mitski, Pinegrove, and PUP saw almost universal critical acclaim for their latest works, and landed on various end-of-year lists across the music world, including Stereogum, Rolling Stone, and NPR. In 2016, we lost David Bowie, an icon of otherworldly proportions who left us with some of his most human work in the shape of his beautiful swan song album Blackstar.
Yet… none of these albums appear anywhere near the nominees for Best Rock Album at the 2017 Grammy Awards. Instead, the nominees are Blink-182’s nostalgic-and-fun-but-not-objectively-very-great comeback album (sans Tom DeLonge) California, Cage The Elephant’s Tell Me I’m Pretty, Gojira’s Magma, Panic! At The Disco’s Death Of A Bachelor, and yet another colored self-titled album from Weezer.
The lack of any overlap whatsoever between the critically-acclaimed “Best of the Year” and the Grammy-nominated “Best of the Year” begs the question: why is there such a disconnect? With the aforementioned acts, as well as artists like Car Seat Headrest landing on nearly every critical year-end list, why is there not a single parallel with the Grammy nominees? Perhaps it’s because no one in the Academy cast their votes for the Grammys this year, as Questlove predicted? Or maybe, as our very own Steven Hyden pointed out, people just aren’t paying attention to the bands keeping rock music alive.
Of course, the lack of exponential exposure that is available to acts like Pinegrove, Mitski, and Pup also plays a role. With all three of these acts on independent labels, they simply don’t have the infinite amount resources that are exploited by the major labels to get their artist on the list of nominees. A recent New York Times article outlined the process of nomination, noting:
The nominating process begins when record companies submit their artists for consideration in specific categories after strategizing to increase the odds of winning more trophies; then the academy scrutinizes the submissions for chicanery. [Senior vice president for awards at the Recording Academy] Mr. [Bill] Freimuth said that there were 24 committees that adjudicate genre, made up of experts in each specific style.
The main takeaway from this excerpt is the strategic release of a record to maximize eligibility and competitiveness. With Run For Cover Records, Dead Oceans, and Side One Dummy Records — who each released records in 2016 by the three aforementioned artists, respectively — the goal is to get the music available to fans as quickly and efficiently as possible. There’s no room in the budget to focus on an award-based release strategy; the only goal is to stay afloat and release good music. “While it would definitely be cool to have our releases matter in that world, we very rarely consider the Grammy’s when planning a release,” Jamie Coletta, Director of Marketing at Side One Dummy said. “It doesn’t mean our records aren’t influential, though, as many pivotal year-end lists can prove otherwise.”
Most independent labels don’t even consider the Grammys as a long-term goal. As Run For Cover label head Jeff Casazza told Fuse in a 2013 interview, Run For Cover’s primary focus is:
Just growing as a business, which is a hard thing to do. We want to become a label that people know, and we’re doing a pretty good job of putting it in people’s faces… We try to do better every year and grow, but we’ve also got to be aware of not growing too fast and getting out of hand by spending too much money. Growing as a business is the goal.
While recent years have seen the previously niche markets that birthed these labels starting to grow in popularity and recognition (Pinegrove will play Primavera Sound Festival this summer, while Mitski will perform at Coachella and PUP will play Boston Calling), the artists still continue to fly under the radar of the Recording Academy. To put it simply, the real problem here is a case of quality versus quantity. All of the Grammy-nominated rock records moved hundreds of thousands of units (or streaming “equivalent units“), a clear-cut example commercial success trumping critical success.
All of that said, with the Recording Academy recently agreeing — thanks, of course, to Chance The Rapper — to make Soundcloud albums eligible for Grammys, perhaps there are already steps being taken to allow these “underground” artists to break into the realm of receiving awards for their art… if they even want that.