When music writers complain about the Grammys it’s like a comedian making a crack about airline food or lines at the DMV. Everybody’s heard it before and there’s not much more to be said; best to leave the subject alone, especially during dinner. But surely I’m not the only one that, when the recording industry guild descends from on high for its yearly ritual of self-congratulation and consumer guidance, can’t seem to shake a few niggling little questions: Who are these people and why do they like Adele so much? Didn’t that Foo Fighters guy used to play drums? Why is Tony Bennett still winning things? Skrillex? Really?
This year’s show was the second most-watched Grammy awards ceremony in history, drawing an astonishing 41 million viewers. The big winners were Adele (top selling album, top selling single of 2011) for top album and single, the Foo Fighters for best rock album and single, Bon Iver for best new artist and “alternative” album, and Kanye West for songs and an album that came out in the waning days of 2010. The nod to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is important because its exclusion last year from an “Album of the Year” nomination was widely derided by critics who saw it as a career-defining album.
To unlock the secrets of the Grammys, dear reader, you must know a few things. First, the Grammys’ granters, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, behave like a pernicious cartel. Second, their stated mission as “the only [emphasis mine] peer-presented award to honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position” is bunkum of the highest order.
Like all cartels, the NARAS depends on its own rarefied position and attempts to circumscribe the market. To join as a voting member, you must prove your status in the commercial recording industry. If the album to which your name is attached is not distributed through “recognized retailers,” you’re ineligible for membership. If you’re working in the digital medium they set the bar higher, you must be credited on twelve tracks on a commercially-released album that has been released through “recognized online music retailers” and be actively promoting your work.
So if that rubric gives you the impression that this group of people is poorly suited for appraising the artistic merits of polka, chiptune or Shostakovich, you’d be right. But the way the Grammies treat American music of all varieties is very telling. This year, the NARAS decided that formerly distinct varieties of regional American music like zydeco, Hawaiian slack-key should all be lumped into a “Regional Roots Music” category. But bluegrass, blues and “Americana” all remain distinct categories, not to mention country which accounts for four awards in itself. This has everything to do with the music industry’s demi-hub Nashville, and the marketability of twang. To be clear, there isn’t anything wrong with where they’ve drawn those distinctions (even though it’s completely arbitrary), but their reasons for doing so have more to do with stimulating sales, not bestowing objective praise upon “artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence,” as they claim.
Furthermore, the subset of people who profit by the Grammys (mostly record labels, musicians at that level usually see very little of the revenue from album sales) are also the same subset of people who argue for imposing more scarcity in the form of harsher intellectual property regulation. So the same people who attempt to circumscribe the choice of what to listen to in turn beatify their own roster, to their great benefit. Listeners are thus presented with a choice between music as a non-commodity from an online jukebox of infinite variety, and a rigidly circumscribed musical universe purchased at inflated prices from a horrifically inefficient music industry. That’s a losing gamble for the old-school recording industry that the Grammys represent, and venerating the likes of Skrillex will only hasten their demise.
… And if you weren’t depressed enough by the awards themselves, enjoy Buzzfeed’s round-up of “Who is Paul McCartney?” tweets.