The urban/rhythm/streaming revolution was by far the biggest music-business story of the year, thanks to Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Bruno Mars, Post Malone, Migos, Khalid, Future, Lil Uzi Vert, DJ Khaled, Big Sean, Logic, Travis Scott, SZA and Kodak Black, all of whom have albums in the Top 30 sellers for the year. In a dramatic shift from tradition, the Grammy nominations reflected this game-changing phenomenon; indeed, the lone non-urban artists nominated in any of the major categories were Lorde for Album and Julia Michaels for Song and Best New Artist.

Kendrick and Ed Sheeran were the overwhelming favorites and on everyone’s lists as the locks of the year. So why did Sheeran, by far the most successful pop artist of 2017, get “Timberlaked” by the Grammy Secret Committee, which shut him out of the key categories? The coinage refers to the Secret Committee’s snubbing of Justin Timberlake’s 2013 album The 20/20 Experience, a critical and commercial favorite, which led to his ongoing boycott of the Grammys. Sheeran had the most-streamed song ever on Spotify with “Shape of You,” which generated 1.4b streams worldwide, while Divide is the second-biggest-selling album of 2017 with 2.5m. It was also the #1 song at Apple in combined streams and sales. What was the reasoning behind this snub?

The perception has long been that playing ball with CBS-TV is extremely helpful for prospective nominees, and Sheeran has done nothing for the network apart from a filmed segment on CBS Sunday Morning. Bruno, on the other hand, had a CBS special, 24K Magic Live at the Apollo, which may well have helped him land six nominations, including Album, Record and Song. Some theorize the decision-makers in the Secret Committee feared a Sheeran sweep, which would have led to a repeat of the diversity conversation triggered by Adele’s multiple wins over Beyoncé at the 2017 Grammys. Conspiracy theorists believe that Atlantic chose to put its focus on Bruno (1.55m), an act signed by the U.S. company, rather than the U.K.-inked Sheeran.

If the Secret Committee chooses the winners as well as the nominees, as many believe, why wouldn’t it give Sheeran a nomination or two and then pass him over? If not, what role does the committee play in terms of the final decisions? Consider Sam Smith’s near sweep and Beck’s upset of Beyoncé in 2015, Taylor Swift’s win over Kendrick and The Weeknd in 2016 and Adele’s aforementioned shut-out of Beyoncé this past February. Will the snub of WMG’s biggest worldwide act result in Sheeran refusing to perform on the telecast? Sheeran was signed by Atlantic U.K.’s Ben Cook as part of Max Lousada’s Warner U.K. Lousada, now WMG’s global head of recorded music, must have had an uncomfortable moment explaining to Sheeran what had happened, especially if he felt sandbagged by the U.S. company, which now reports to him, bringing another level of intrigue to the situation.  

MAKINGTHECUT:Other artists passed over in the major categories included Taylor (1.9m), Post Malone (1.41m), Migos (1.38m), The Weeknd (1.35m), Future (1.05m on Future, 619k on HNDRXX), Imagine Dragons (1.03m), DJ Khaled (933k) and Chris Stapleton (1.4m combined on From A Room: Vol. 1 and Traveller), all of whom had Top 30 albums, along with Drake (2.16m), who took himself out of the running. Instead, they chose Jay-Z (614k) and Childish Gambino (645k RTD), whose albums sold moderately well, and Lorde, whose LP has sold only 323k up to now, opting to prioritize critical acclaim and coolness over commercial success.

Jay-Z brings a number of intangibles to the party; he’s being honored at the Recording Academy’s Clive Davis pre-Grammy Gala, just this year he was the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, he’s had a consistently successful career spanning 21 years and his sphere of influence is massive industrywide. What’s more, 4:44 has been hailed as a thought-provoking work by a mature artist addressing powerful themes like family, race and politics. Somewhat ironically, Jay-Z could be the reason the brilliant Kendrick gets passed over yet again, given that they’re going head to head for Album and Record. Like Jay-Z before him, Kendrick is a cultural icon as well as a hitmaker of the highest order. DAMN. was the top-selling album of the year, with 2.6m, while “HUMBLE.,” the #2 single, led his three entries in the Top 50 streamed songs. If there was ever a time to anoint an artist from what is now mainstream music’s dominant genre, the time is now, and Kendrick is the obvious choice. By also nominating Jay-Z, as deserving as he may be, in the major categories, the Secret Committee has muddied the waters.   

Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, who had a big radio hit and Top 20 streaming song with “Redbone,” is a one-of-a-kind polymath with a mantel full of Emmys, Golden Globes and other trophies. Glover is well on his way to becoming a huge star and a major celebrity—and Daniel GlassGlassnote has done a remarkable job of marketing “Awaken, My Love!” without any major help from the artist, who has been focused on his film and TV career.

Lorde’s Melodrama, one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year, was neither highly streamed nor a top seller but arguably has the coolest vibe of any of the Album of the Year nominees. Lorde’s recognition is also a great branding opportunity for Ron Perry, who signed her to SONGS publishing and was heavily involved in the making of this album, which has yielded no hit track thus far, but she has a new single in play at radio. Perry should get a big halo effect from his Lorde coup when he takes on the challenge of keeping the cool flame alive as Columbia’s incoming CEO, making Rob Stringer’s choice seem even sexier.Of the acts that have been passed over in the most important categories, Imagine Dragons are the biggest new rock act of the last five years but have never been embraced by the cool kids, while the Country shutout for the first time in 14 years could be partly attributed to the genre’s lack of streaming success, which has hurt their overall numbers, apart from Stapleton and Sam Hunt. But this sweeping snub—which has not surprisingly angered Nashville—could also be attributed to the Secret Committee’s lack of sophistication in analyzing the marketplace.RCA’s double entry of Khalid and SZA in the always intriguing Best New Artist category is a testament to the label’s purposefulness and expertise in its artist-development efforts The last label to grab two BNA noms in the same year was Columbia in 2009, with MGMT and The Ting Tings.

...Read I.B. Bad on the Rainmakers of 2017

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