Seattle Times music critic Paul de Barros, a voting member of The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, explains the nuts and bolts of the Grammy Awards. The 2016 ceremony is Monday, Feb. 15.
Every year, a lot of lively conversation is sparked by the Grammy Awards — which will be handed out Monday — as in: “How come my favorite artist didn’t win? (Again!).” “It’s rigged!” “It’s all about record sales, not artistry!” You’ve heard the hue and cry, maybe even been part of it.
Thanks to the controversy over the Oscars passing over nonwhite actors this year, we’ve learned quite a bit about how the film academy works. But what drives the gears inside the Grammy machine? As someone who has been a voting member of the Recording Academy for nearly 20 years, maybe I can shed some light with a list of five things you might not know about the awards.
But first, a little background. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) was formed in 1957 by a group of musicians and record executives who wanted to give out annual awards to their peers — artists, producers and studio engineers. With more than 23,000 members — about 60 percent of whom are eligible to vote — the academy makes awards in 83 categories. The ceremony was not televised until 1971 but is now a major media event. Last year, almost 25 million people watched the show.
58th Annual Grammy Awards
The awards ceremony will be broadcast live at 5 p.m. Monday on CBS.
Nominees of local interest:
Best Rock Album: Death Cab for Cutie, “Kintsugi”
Best Americana Album: Brandi Carlile, “The Firewatcher’s Daughter”
Contemporary Instrumental Album: Bill Frisell, “Guitar in the Space Age!”
Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package: Father John Misty’s “I Love You Honeybear” (Limited-Edition Deluxe Vinyl), Sub Pop
Best Orchestral Performance, Best Classical Instrumental Solo, Best Engineered Album, Classical: Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot conducting, “Henri Dutilleux: Métaboles; L’Arbre Des Songes; Symphony No. 2, ‘Le Double,’ ” (Augustin Hadelich, soloist, Dmitriy Lipay, engineer; Alexander Lipay, mastering engineer)
Best Opera Recording: Stephen Stubbs (Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra), “Steffani: Niobe, Regina Di Tebe”
1. Who votes? Unlike “best of the year” polls by music critics or popularity contests such as the People’s Choice Awards, Grammy winners are chosen by people who participate in making recordings. Voting members need to rack up credits (creative or technical) on six commercially released tracks or 12 tracks released by retailers online. (I earned my voting rights by producing albums for Northwest Folklife and by writing album notes.)
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2. How are artists and albums nominated? It’s complicated. Record companies or artists submit recordings for consideration — currently, about 20,000. Screening committees place submissions in categories, then a first ballot is sent to voting members, who choose five nominees. (The nomination process is also calibrated in various areas by committees). The final ballot goes out in December. All ballots are sent to an accounting firm, not the academy itself.
3. Can anyone vote in every category? No. All voters are allowed to make their picks in the top four categories — best record, song, album and new artist. But after that, they are limited to 20 categories (out of 83). So all the talk you hear every year about how “a bunch of nerdy engineers” or “white-haired old jazz fans” get to choose the best rap album of the year is pretty much nonsense. It’s probably useful to know, too, that every nominated piece of music is available to voters online, with their ballot.
4. Do considerations other than excellence and expertise influence voting? Yes. The academy goes out of its way to say that awards are not based on record sales. And they aren’t. But it’s also true that the Grammys are about artists who are already in the game. That is not necessarily a bad thing. I remember one year when a committee member lobbying eagerly for an obscure musician was politely but firmly told by an old-timer that the Grammy awards were “not about artists no one has ever heard of.” Nevertheless, every year, people complain that their favorite backyard genius didn’t win. If you’re looking for that, go elsewhere.
Local pride inevitably comes into play with the Grammys, as well. I doubt, for example, that many Northwest voters skipped over Macklemore’s “The Heist” two years ago, even if they may have thought — as Macklemore himself apparently did (he famously apologized for winning) — that Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” was a better rap album. Partly because Grammy voters, like their counterparts at the Oscars, are prone to casting “makeup” votes for artists who’ve been embarrassingly overlooked in the past, Lamar, who has 11 nominations, will no doubt win for best rap album this year. But that’s not the only reason. “To Pimp A Butterfly” is a masterpiece.
Over the years, I’ve also observed that Academy voters — like investors or, for that matter, political voters — tend to get swept up by sheer momentum. I think that’s why Macklemore won four awards two years ago. The same tendency may work for Lamar in 2016. But you never know. Grammy voters also seem to like surprises — like picking jazz vocalist/ bassist Esperanza Spalding over Justin Bieber in 2011 for best new artist.
5. Which Northwest artists are likely to win, and why?
Death Cab for Cutie has a good chance for best rock album, and not just as a “makeup” vote — they’ve been nominated four times before and lost — but because “Kintsugi” is such a fine album. Guitarist Bill Frisell is an even better bet for contemporary instrumental album, though “Guitar in the Space Age!” is not one of his best, and Snarky Puppy, also in the running, has hipster cachet. If ex-Fleet Foxes singer-songwriter Father John Misty wins for best boxed or limited-edition package, it would be a slap in the face to the magnificent box set “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume Two (1928-32).” Brandi Carlile has the misfortune of receiving her first Grammy nomination, for “The Firewatcher’s Daughter,” in the Americana field, which puts her up against Emmylou Harris, the Punch Brothers and Jason Isbell. Good luck with that.
I’m going to plead ignorance on the Seattle Symphony’s three nominations for its recording “Henri Dutilleux: Métaboles; L’Arbre Des Songes; Symphony No. 2, ‘Le Double,’ ” because I haven’t heard it, but I do know the SSO is sounding fabulous these days, live. Conductor Stephen Stubbs, whose Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra is up for best opera recording, won last year and probably has a very good chance in 2016.