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ASSESSING GRAMMY’S
NEW RULES
The Grammy Whisperer Weighs In

The Grammys have finally decided to stop handing out Album of the Year nominations to practically everybody who worked on a given album. Going forward, producers, engineer/mixers, mastering engineers and featured artists must have worked on at least 33% of an album’s playing time.

At the same time, the Grammys have decided to recognize songwriters for the first time in this category—but again only if they meet that 33% threshold.

This is great news. The Grammys were doling out Album of the Year nominations like they were Halloween candy. This year, three of the five finalists in that category each had more than 20 producers—and every last one of them was nominated. Beyoncé’s Lemonade had 24 producers. Justin Bieber’s Purpose and Drake’s Views each had 21. Adele’s 25, which won the award, had a comparatively modest nine producers. Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth had just one—Simpson himself.

It was a similar story with other creative participants. Adele’s album had 22 engineer/mixers, more than anyone else in the category. Drake’s album had six featured artists, more than anyone else.

From now on, the number of nominations to participants will be sharply reduced. And that’s a good thing. People who worked on a healthy number tracks will be nominated. People who contributed to just one or two tracks won’t be.

As for adding songwriters to the mix, that too is a good idea. Speaking with the Los Angeles Times, Bill Freimuth, the Recording Academy’s SVP of Awards, said that this proposal was made more than a year ago. “My knee-jerk reaction was that we have a special category for songwriters, so why would we need to? But after I let it sink in, I thought, ‘Wow, why didn’t we think of this before?’”

Indeed, there are already other categories for songwriters, notably Song of the Year. But that’s also true for these other professionals. Producers can compete for Producer of the Year (either Classical or Non-Classical). Engineers can compete for Best Engineered Album (again, either Classical or Non-Classical).

Nominations in the Rap, Contemporary Instrumental and New Age fields will be determined by Nominations Review Committees. This brings to 15 the number of fields where the final say has been taken from the voters and given to a select committee. 

Here are other key Grammy rule changes—and what they mean.

Grammy voting will now be online only; there will be no more paper ballots. The idea is to make it easier for members who are on the road (or on vacation) during the voting period to participate. This is a good idea. Busy, active members are the ones that the academy most wants to involve in the process. You don’t want them to miss out on voting because they were busy working and not at home at the time.

Are there members who don’t have computer access and thus will no longer be able to vote? That’s hard to imagine in 2017, but if there are a few, the academy seems to be saying, it’s time for us to move on.

The nominations list has been online-only for quite a few years. (Members can call and request a printed copy of the list—which is the size of the Cincinnati phone book.)

Two amendments that were made in the Music for Visual Media field feel like a direct response to things that happened this past year.

As a general rule, only one version of a track can be entered in the Grammy process. But the Grammys will make an exception for film songs. From now on, the film version of a track may be entered in the Best Song Written for Visual Media category, even if a different version is submitted in other categories. You can call this the Justin Timberlake Amendment. Timberlake and his team submitted the film version of “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” from the animated film Trolls, which won for Best Song Written for Visual Media. The film version features not only Timberlake but also 10 other cast members, including Anna Kendrick and James Corden. Under the old rules, Timberlake wasn’t allowed to submit his solo version of the song, which was the year’s top-selling single, for Best Pop Solo Performance. The cast recording was instead slotted in the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance category. A nomination in that category—alongside hits by twenty one pilots and The Chainsmokers featuring Halsey—wouldn’t have made much sense—and indeed it was passed over for a nomination. If the rule change had been in place this year, Timberlake probably would have been nominated for Best Pop Solo Performance—though he still probably wouldn’t have won. (Adele’s blockbuster hit “Hello” was destined to win that.)

In the Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media category, eligibility guidelines have been amended so that soundtrack albums from a documentary or biopic must contain 51% or more of newly recorded music. This year, three of the five nominees were dominated by older recordings. Miles Ahead, which won, was dominated by vintage recordings by Miles Davis, who died in 1991. Amy included 11 recordings by Amy Winehouse, who died in 2011. Straight Outta Compton: Music from the Motion Picture consisted entirely of previously recorded tracks by N.W.A and others. The rule change will make more room for compilations of newly recorded tracks, such as Suicide Squad: The Album, which was also a finalist this year.

Nominations in three more fields—Rap, Contemporary Instrumental and New Age—will be determined by Nominations Review Committees. This brings to 15 the number of fields where the final say has been taken from the voters and given to a select committee. An academy statement says the nominations review process was established “to eliminate the potential for a popularity bias that puts emerging artists, independent music and late-year releases at a disadvantage.”

I have mixed feelings about Nomination Review Committees. The academy statement makes the case for why they’re helpful. But to the extent that the committees make changes, they are taking nominations away from artists who the voters fully intended to honor. In so doing, a small group of insiders is able to second-guess and overturn the will of hundreds or even thousands of rank-and-file voters. I hope all of these Nomination Review Committees use their tremendous power with great care.

THE GRAMMY WHISPERER LOOKS INTO RECORD OF
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