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If Alicia Keys’ album climbs back up the charts, few will credit the Grammys’ impact. If India.Arie’s album climbs back up the charts, the Grammys will be credited with breaking an artist.
GRAMMY VOTING FOR DUMMIES
Everything You Wanted to Know About the Nomination and Award Process But Didn't Think We'd Know
by Paul Grein

Alicia KeysSongs in A Minor seemed to have a lock on a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. The album was a hit with the public, critics and within the industry. How could it miss?

But miss it did. When the nominations for the 44th annual Grammy Awards were announced on Jan. 4, U2, Bob Dylan and the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? were all in the running for Album of the Year, as expected. But the remaining two slots went to India.Arie and OutKast. Keys had six nominations, which is more than a little consolation, but it didn’t keep people from asking, "What happened?"

The answer is a bit complicated, but then so is the Grammy voting process. If Grammy nominations for Album of the Year were still decided by the votes of the membership of NARAS, as they were prior to 1995, Keys would almost certainly have been in the running.

But Keys apparently ran into some resistance from "The Panel,’’ the group of 20-25 insiders that meets each December to review the results of the membership’s voting in the "Big Four’’ categories—Record of the Year (for singles and tracks), Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist. The panel did place Keys in the finals in three of the top four categories—but they denied her a clean sweep. It did, however, give a clean sweep to India.Arie, a similar neo-soul artist who has had far less commercial impact or critical acclaim.

Why? No one on the Grammy panel is talking, but it’s not hard to figure out. The panel could have awarded Album of the Year berths to both Keys and India.Arie, but they strive for stylistic diversity. If they had included both women, they would have had to forgo any representation of either rap or country—or drop one of the rock legends.

But why India.Arie instead of Keys? Oddly, Keys’ huge commercial impact may have worked against her. If Alicia Keys’ album climbs back up the charts, few will credit the Grammys’ impact. If India.Arie’s album climbs back up the charts, the Grammys will be credited with breaking an artist.

The entire Grammy process takes about eight months from the submission of the first entries to the awards presentation. The entry process begins in June and concludes in mid-September, about two weeks before the end of the eligibility year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. In October, a screening committee consisting of about 200 musicologists, journalists and label representatives meets in Los Angeles to resolve disputes that arise in the entry process. If a recording is entered in two or more fields—say, Pop and R&B—the committee decides where it belongs.

After that, all the entries are compiled into a telephone-book-sized booklet that is mailed in early November to the academy’s 18,000 voting members—artists, songwriters, producers, engineers and others involved in the craft of record-making.

This year, there are 101 categories, divided into 28 fields. Voters may vote in up to nine fields. Most, presumably, vote in the General Field and then cherry-pick among the rest of the fields, which include Pop, Rock, R&B, Country, Latin, Production and Classical. Members theoretically should vote only in fields they really know, but there’s no control over that. You may not know Luciano Pavarotti from Lucinda Williams and still vote in the Classical Field.

Voting conscientiously in the first round isn’t a simple matter. Voters have to wade through thousands of titles to select the five they think are most worthy. This year, there were 578 entries for Record of the Year, 548 for Album of the Year, 602 for Song of the Year and 448 for Best New Artist. In other fields, the number of entries varies greatly. This year, there were just 11 entries for Best Merengue Album, vs. 245 entries for Best Mexican/Mexican-American Album. (If a category has fewer than 10 entries, it is dropped for that year.)

Members do the first-round voting in 95 of the 101 categories. Craft committees do the first-round voting in the six other categories—Album Notes, Historical and two categories each in the Recording Package and Music Video fields. In most cases, the top five vote-getters become the nominees. But in eight fields, committees review and have the opportunity to tweak the voting results. The committees review a list of the Top 20 vote-getters and select the five they deem most worthy. This is done in the General Field, as well as Jazz, Classical, Composing, Arranging, Engineering, Producing and Remixing.

Even though the panel sometimes overrules the wishes of the membership, it has caused little outcry. That’s because the panel’s choices have generally been praised in the music press. It’s as if NARAS boss Michael Greene realized that if the music press is going to critique the Grammy nominations each year, it would be prudent to nominate artists the music press likes. Smart move.

All Academy members vote in the final round in all categories. So even though the panel boosted India.Arie’s profile by putting her in the finals for Album, Record and Song of the Year—categories in which she probably wouldn’t have appeared under the old system—from here on in, rank-and-file members decide.

In other words, Alicia Keys: Clear some space on your mantel. India.Arie: Practice acting gracious in defeat.

Paul Grein, a veteran Grammy prognosticator, is a member of the October screening committee, but for the record, he has never been on the panel that chooses the final nominees.

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