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GRAMMYS OPT FOR "INCLUSIVENESS" IN BEST NEW ARTIST CATEGORY

If you're a voting member of the Recording Academy, you should have just received this year's online entry list. If you've started poring over the list of 431 artists who are vying for Best New Artist, you may be surprised to see Meghan Trainor and Hozier in there. Weren't they nominated for top awards last year?

Yes, they were. Trainor was up for Record and Song of the Year for "All About That Bass." Hozier was up for Song of the Year for "Take Me to Church." But the category is linked to the release of full-length albums. Hozier's debut album was released in the first week of the current eligibility year. Trainor's first major-label album was released in January.

If you're a total Grammy nerd, you may remember a rule that if an artist was nominated for Song of the Year for a song on which he or she was the principal artist, that would preclude later consideration for Best New Artist.

The Academy's senior management decided over the summer that Grammy justice was best served by letting Trainor and Hozier compete for Best New Artist, despite that rule, rather than have them join the long list of notable artists who were ruled ineligible in that category. The list includes such luminaries as Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston and Lady Gaga. (I'll give you the details on those and other cases below.)

When the Grammy brain-trust made that decision on Trainor and Hozier, they decided to also be "inclusive, rather than exclusive" with most of the acts that were "on the bubble" in terms of eligibility. This includes such acts as twenty one pilots, Walk the Moon, CHVRCHES, Cole Swindell, Echosmith, Brett Eldredge and Dan + Shay.

The Grammys' guiding principle in the Best New Artist category has long been this: "For a new artist who releases, during the eligibility year, the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist."

In recent years, they've given artists an 18-month window in which to break through. So if an artist's breakthrough album was released just prior to the start of the eligibility year, they'd still be allowed to compete. But this year, they expanded that window well past 18 months.

Eldredge's debut album, Bring You Back, was released in August 2013.  Eldredge was a finalist for the CMA Award for New Artist of the Year in November 2013—and won it on his second try a year later, when he beat Swindell and Thomas Rhett, among others. Eldredge's sophomore album, Illinois, was released last month.

Echosmith's debut (and still only) album, Talking Dreams, was released in October 2013. It has spawned two hits, "Cool Kids" and this year's "Bright."

Walk the Moon had a hit this year with its third album, Talking Is Hard. It built on the more moderate success of the group's eponymous sophomore album.

twenty one pilots entered the charts at #1 in May with Blurryface. The groundwork for that lofty debut was laid by the band's previous album, the sleeper hit Vessel, which was released in January 2013. The band was a finalist for a VMA "Artist to Watch" award in June 2013.

Blurryface is twenty one pilots' fourth studio album (the first two were self-released). Likewise, Title is Trainor's fourth studio album (the first three were self-released). This, too, shows a more relaxed stance. In the past, if an act had had more than three albums (with national distribution), it was automatically disqualified from New Artist consideration.

While the Grammys took a more inclusive approach this year, not everyone wound up on the eligibility list. Fifth Harmony, which released its first full-length album, Reflection, in January, doesn't appear. The album spawned a big hit, "Worth It," featuring Kid Ink. The quintet won the VMA for "Artist to Watch" in June 2014.

Chris Stapleton, who is a current finalist for the CMA award for New Artist of the Year, was also left off the Grammy eligibility list. Stapleton's first solo album, Traveller, was released in May.

Pentatonix, whose smash Christmas album falls into this eligibility year, isn't eligible because the members won a Grammy last year for Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella for "Daft Punk."

Other artists who are not on the eligibility list, for one reason or another, include Major Lazer, Chase Rice, Andy Mineo and CAM.

This Year's Likely Nominees

So what does all this mean for this year's Best New Artist race? It suddenly got more competitive.

I still think Trainor and Sam Hunt are the front-runners, with gospel/soul singer Leon Bridges also a safe bet for a nomination. Trainor is vying to become the first female pop singer to win in this category since Adele, the 2008 winner. Hunt would become the first male country solo artist ever to win in this category.

twenty one pilots and Hozier may be the leading contenders for the two remaining slots. I had previously discounted Hozier, on the grounds that he wasn't able to land another hit after "Take Me To Church," but his album has held up very well on the charts even without a follow-up hit.

Many other worthy acts are fighting to break into the top five, should any of these front-runners falter. They include Walk the Moon, Tori Kelly, Elle King, Tinashe, James Bay, Halsey, Shawn Mendes, Echosmith, Fetty Wap, Rae Sremmurd, CHVRCHES, X Ambassadors, Tove Lo, Maddie & Tae, George Ezra, Dej Loaf, Robert DeLong, FKA twigs, Vance Joy, Thomas Rhett, Brett Eldredge, Cole Swindell, Dan + Shay, Kelsea Ballerini, Mikky Ekko, Nico & Vinz, Rico Love, Ella Henderson and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats.

You look at the caliber of most of the names on that list and you see that it's not just an empty platitude when people say "It's an honor just to be nominated."

One of the most famous names on the eligibility list is David Duchovny, the former star of The X-Files. Duchovny released his first album, Hell or Highwater, in May.

Only Artists With Full-Length Albums Need Apply

Charlie Puth and Rachel Platten would have been strong contenders, but their albums didn't make the 9/30 deadline. Puth's debut album, Nine Track Mind, is due 1/22. Platten's first post-"Fight Song" album has yet to be scheduled. Both had four-song EPs, but releases have to consist of five or more songs to be considered an album.

In insisting that artists must release a full-length album (or an EP consisting of five or more songs) to be considered for Best New Artist, the Grammys are clinging to an old-fashioned notion.

The industry has for years been moving from a period where the album was paramount to a time when the song is again king. We may lament that trend, but to deny that it is happening just makes you seem out of touch.

Fetty Wap is eligible for Best New Artist this year, because his debut album was released in the final week of this eligibility year. If the album had been released one week later, he would not have been eligible until next year. The massive success of Fetty's #2 smash "Trap Queen" (and the top 10 success of his two follow-up hits, "679" and "My Way") is what established his public identity. The success of the album is just the icing on the cake.

The Grammys should reconsider their insistence that an artist has to have an album out, or they'll increasingly be running a year behind their audience. Meghan Trainor may well be crowned Best New Artist in February 2016, 17 months after "All About That Bass" soared to #1, 15 months after Trainor performed the song on the CMA Awards (in tandem with Miranda Lambert), and 12 months after she was nominated in two of the four marquee Grammy categories. Viewers may well be confused by that. (I'm a little confused by that.)

The Grammys could still, as a general rule, prefer to wait for an album to evaluate an artist, but they should give themselves the option to "fast track" an artist who has made a huge impact with an initial single or singles. I'm thinking of you, Bruno Mars. And you, Meghan Trainor. Waiting a full year for an artist to be considered for Best New Artist just doesn't cut it in such a fast-paced industry.

Best New Artist Through the Years

Until a few years ago, if a new artist received a Grammy nomination before they released their first album, they weren't allowed in the Best New Artist race when they did finally release their first album.

Jennifer Hudson would have been a top contender for Best New Artist in 2008, but she was ruled ineligible because she had been among the cast members nominated for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album the previous year for Dreamgirls.

Lady Gaga would have been a potent contender in 2009, but she was knocked out because her breakthrough hit "Just Dance" had been nominated for Best Dance Recording the previous year.

Bruno Mars would have been a top contender in 2011, but he had been nominated in several categories the previous year, including Record of the Year for his featured role on B.O.B's "Nothin' On You."

This wasn't the first time that eminent artists were disqualified from competing for Best New Artist for activity before the release of their debut albums.

Whitney Houston, who would almost certainly have been the 1985 winner, was knocked out contention because she had released a pair of duets with Jermaine Jackson and Teddy Pendergrass the previous year.

Richard Marx, who probably would have won for 1987, was bumped out because he had a track on the Nothing In Common soundtrack the previous year. (The song, "Burning Of The Heart," wasn't even a hit.)

But you can go even further back.

In 1963, Barbra Streisand was disqualified from the New Artist competition because she had appeared on the 1962 cast album to I Can Get It For You Wholesale. The real loser here was the Academy, which lost out on the chance to have one of the most illustrious names in recording history on its roster of New Artist winners. Who did they anoint instead? The Swingle Singers—a jazz vocal ensemble whose career fizzled out around 1965. 

In the Academy's defense, they really do try to get it right. They've changed the rules so that many of these problems can't recur. And of course, music—and the way music is delivered and consumed—is ever-changing. That's what's so great about this business, but it definitely makes it more challenging for the Academy.

 Read our Grammy Whisperer on albums and the entry list here.

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