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NEAR TRUTHS:
BEHIND THE SCREEN

KACEYGATE: We’ve spilled a fair amount of ink over the last few years on the shadowy, underhanded and downright corrupt doings behind the Grammy curtain. We zeroed in on the secret committees, probed the unchecked influence of players like former Chief Awards Officer Bill Freimuth, lamented the ejection and persecution of muckraking CEO-for-a-minute Deb Dugan and pondered the backroom manipulation that could result in an artist as massively successful and culturally important as The Weeknd (or as genre-relevant as Luke Combs and Maren Morris) getting shut out. We trained our flashlight on the dirty deeds allegedly being done by certain insiders on the Nashville committee.

There’s a new body on the latter crime scene: the exclusion of Kacey MusgravesInterscope/UMG Nashville album, star-crossed, from the Country category. Why did this happen? Not because Musgraves included too many flutes and synthesizers alongside the requisite banjos (despite all the blather about scrupulous track-by-track review) but because these players and their proxies on the committee wanted it out of the way and went all Tonya Harding on her.

Harvey Mason Jr. said in a recent interview that with secret review committees abolished, decisions about the appropriateness of submissions to particular categories would be decided by “thousands” of members rather than a shadowy few. But Kacey’s elimination was accomplished by a group of no more than a dozen people in the secret Country screening committee. In case you’re wondering who sits on such a committee, we are too. Here’s how it works: the (secret) head of each screening committee is picked by trustees and that person then appoints the (secret) committee members. (Trustees whose fingerprints may be on this caper include Nashville regulars Tracy Gershon, Fletcher Foster and George Flanigen.)

“If she’s in the category, she’ll win,” one committee member told the group. After some discussion, it was decided a secret vote would be taken. It’s our understanding that two execs were told to sit out the vote on the grounds that they had a rooting interest in star-crossed. But committee members who very much had a dog in this hunt—including label execs, up-and-coming artists and at least one manager representing other albums competing for consideration—were free to cast a vote, and guess what? Musgraves lost. At least as far as anybody knows who didn’t see the actual ballots.

In any case, the matter was referred to the Pop committee, which takes all the genres’ problem children and gladly—and unsurprisingly—accepted Musgraves.

UMGN prexy Cindy Mabe, attorney Joel Katz and others appealed to Mason to rectify the situation. The Grammy chief demurred, saying the “big room” (aka the core committee) would sort it out. The result of this next phase—with nobody from the country world involved—was that the relegation of Musgraves to Pop was upheld. There she’ll be vying with the likes of Olivia Rodrigo, Lil Nas X, Justin Bieber, The Kid LAROI, Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Doja Cat and Halsey, among other chart-topping acts, for one of eight spots. This is not to say that Kacey couldn’t win in Pop if nominated, and she could still be a contender for Album of the Year. Indeed, a nom in that category would be a particularly magnanimous gesture, although the Grammys aren’t known for this kind of artist-friendly move.

Yes, HMJ abolished the secret review committees. Which is why the screening committees, also secret, offer another opportunity to undertake backroom machinations before the process goes public. But as the Academy’s bylaws make abundantly clear, the Board of Trustees and their affiliates have complete discretion to do whatever they wish as regards who gets nominations, who wins awards, “voting procedures,” how secret committees are composed, how disputes are handled and pretty much everything else. To quote chapter and verse, namely 4.3.5(c), “[Trustee Membership Class] … have the power to approve, adopt, vote on, consent with respect to or ratify such matters or actions that the Chair or the Executive Committee decides to submit to the Trustee Membership Class for such action.”

The Musgraves affair proves that Harvey’s changes were mostly if not utterly cosmetic—and that he’s fairly impotent in the face of all this skullduggery. (As if to put an absurdist exclamation point on the situation, the Comedy Screening Committee subsequently disqualified Bo Burnham’s wildly acclaimed Inside, with far fewer fireworks. One assumes that after rigorous track-by-track analysis, a minyan of humorists deemed it less than 51% funny.)

The incident has ignited a firestorm of indignation across the biz and in the press. Billboard—in a rare and welcome departure from its Academy-coddling past—kicked things off, including in its coverage of a fiery letter from Mabe that confronted the Academy and HMJ for this outrage. Articles in Esquire, Rolling Stone, the L.A. Times and others followed.

Musgraves, you’ll recall, won Country Album and overall Album of the Year in 2019 with Golden Hour, a set that was stylistically similar to star-crossed—and crafted with many of the same writers and producers. This time, the Country screening committee summarily claimed that the current record was outside the genre. Is it a pop-sounding record? Sure. But that doesn’t mean this wasn’t a procedural kneecapping. Was everyone in Country in on it? Of course not—but the system is structured to reward secrecy and self-dealing.

The top country orgs, DSPs, artists and others have been speaking out on Kacey’s behalf. Will reps from other labels also speak up and call out the anonymous gang behavior that permeates Academy culture? If it can happen to Kacey—and Abel, Luke, Maren and Bo—it can happen to anyone.

Asked how best to address all this, one exec—who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal—said simply, “Burn it to the ground.”

DONDA DEAL: Word has it that HMJ took a considerably more active role in attempting to woo Ye (fka Kanye West) back into the Grammy fold. We’re told Harvey flew out to see him and listen to  his album Donda. It was thought to be personally important for the Academy boss, himself a producer, to show respect. Will this goodwill mission result in big noms and possibly big wins for Ye? A peculiar irony to this story is that if “Hurricane,” submitted for Record of the Year, takes that trophy, it will mean featured artist The Weeknd—despite his refusal to submit his own music after last year’s vicious snub—could win a Grammy anyway.

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