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Austin Chronicle The Grammys: A View From the Cheap Seats

By Michael Bertin

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  Abra Moore had a dream. While attending the Grammys as a disinterested spectator in 1997, she dared to think big. A sexier date? No. A more glamorous dress? Uh-uh. A golden gramophone statuette to call her own? Not even close. "I was sitting in the seats way in the back," confesses Moore, "and I went, 'Boy it would be great to get better seats.'"

Here's to the dreamers, then, as not but one year later Moore's came true. "It didn't even dawn on me the possibility of being nominated, but the next year I had great seats," says the Austinite, who received a nomination for "Best Female Rock Performance," and with it a choice view of the entire proceedings, which included the spectacle of tartlet Fiona Apple winning Moore's category and making a bizarre plea for some forgotten cause. Moore wasn't miffed though.

"I was just really honored to be recognized by the industry. It's nice to be appreciated."

Nice, yes, but despite the I'm-just-happy-to-be-here attitude, it's nicer to win. Why? A Grammy can have a significant impact on an artist's career beyond the functionality of being, oh, a handy paperweight or maybe doorstop.

Take Bonnie Raitt, for instance. Shortly before cleaning up in 1989 with four Grammys for Nick of Time, Raitt was described in print as a "slide guitar journeywoman" -- a not uncommon description of the then-fortysomething, red-maned musician. Not exactly a compliment. Two weeks after the ceremony, the album jumped from number 40 to the top spot of the Billboard charts where it stayed for nearly a month. Now Raitt plays the main stage at the Lilith Fair.

Ray Benson of Austin's Asleep at the Wheel and possessor of six Grammys from 20 or 21 nominations ("I lost count," he claims) noticed a similar although much smaller-scale fiduciary spillover to their first win.


illustration by Jason Stout

"We were very blasé about the whole thing," explains Benson. "We didn't go to the show. We were broke and we were in Lubbock Texas, playing a honky-tonk. We were having trouble getting paid and it was one o'clock in the morning -- the show was on the West Coast that year, so it was two hours difference -- and somebody came on the bus as I was sitting there very pissed off as the guy was literally emptying the pool table for quarters to pay us.

"Anyway, the guy came on the bus and said, 'You guys just won a Grammy.' And I was like, 'Yeah, right.' I didn't believe him. Then I saw it on the news, in Lubbock, on the local news when it was rerun again at 1:30 in the morning. And I went, 'Wow man,' and didn't think much of it.

"But what it did is make people take notice. That was shocking to me. I remember we had a gig. It was our first private corporate gig. It was for big money for HEB. And this guy went, 'Now, you won a Grammy this year, right?'

"So I knew, 'Oh, that's how we got the job.'"

Both Benson and Raitt have also won five Grammys since their inaugural triumphs. That may actually be the best thing about winning a Grammy as of late: It makes it easier to win more Grammys. Prior to his walking off with six Grammys for 1992's Unplugged (an album the guitarist thought wasn't worth releasing), Eric Clapton had won all of two Grammys over his 30-year career -- one for 1990's Bad Love and another for his contribution to 1972's "Album of the Year," Concert for Bangladesh. That's three decades of being "God" with a mere two Grammys to show for it. Not that he wasn't grateful for the windfall; after every newspaper in the country ran an AP wire shot of Clapton walking off with an armload of statuettes, Unplugged started selling by the truckload, eventually racking up sales of eight million and counting. In the six Grammy ceremonies since 1992, Clapton has picked up four more awards and is nominated twice again this year.

With that kind of money and prestige at stake, how then is it determined who gets to walk away with the hardware each February? Good question. After all, looking at the nominations every year, there are always more than a few nomination that make you think, "Who the hell came up with these?" C'mon, after going "Wow, Fastball got two nominations ("Best Rock Performance by a Duo or a Group" and "Best Longform Video"), you scanned the list of nominees and felt slightly ill (or snickered) upon discovering that John Tesh, of all people, had been nominated for a Grammy ("Best New Age Album"). Or why did two of the five slots for "Best Male Rock Vocal Performance" get filled by songs that have a combined lifespan of 30 years old (John Hiatt's "Have A Little Faith in Me" and John Fogerty's "Almost Saturday Night"), while a third nominee, Jeff Buckley, has been dead almost two years? Why is Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road a nominee for "Best Contemporary Folk Record" while "Can't Let Go," a song from that album, is a nominee for "Best Female Rock Vocal Performance"?

Naturally, the answers are as simple as getting Lucinda Williams to make a record.

The Grammys are handed out by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A member organization of 13,000 recording industry professionals-producers, engineers, songwriters, etc., NARAS claims that handing out Grammys is one of the least important things they do. Instead, successful programs like Grammy in the Schools, which exposes kids interested in the recording industry to facets of the biz, and MusiCares, a financial assistance program for musicians in dire need of funds, supposedly get the majority of NARAS's attention. For example, when the Texana Dames had their equipment stolen, MusiCares provided them with funds to help them cover the cost of replacing their gear. NARAS also holds a variety of seminars and workshops for industry people to meet and exchange ideas or simply learn more about their respective crafts.

"Any time music professionals get together and talk and it's not 'business,' that's a good thing," says Casey Monahan, director of the Texas Music Office, who was instrumental, along with Benson and local music industry veteran Carlyne Majer, in getting the Texas chapter of NARAS established in 1994 (Majer is now its president). "The more we do that, then the more profitable and intelligent the music community will be."

Nevertheless, while NARAS thinks awarding Grammys is the least important thing it does, everyone else knows that it's the most important thing it does. And believe it or not, it's a fairly straightforward process.

Of the 13,000 NARAS members, 10k are voting members and those voting members are, obviously, the people who decide who walks away with the hardware. In order to qualify as a voting member, electorate individuals must provide proof of being either a producer, composer, engineer, songwriter, or even a writer of liner notes on six commercially released recordings. Once those credits are confirmed, you literally your pay dues -- currently $65 a year -- and presto, you're a voting member. Nonvoting members of NARAS are plentiful, connected to the organization through their careers or are involved in some facet the music industry, but Grammy voters are, for the most part, the folks who make music, either from the creative side or from the technical side.

It's worth pointing out who the voters are not. They're generally not record label people, radio people, or print people. Music critics don't get to cast a ballot unless they've penned a few sets of liner notes, which means senior editors at Rolling Stone and the like, but not many more. Even if you're the president of the most powerful record company in the world, you don't get to vote unless you have those six credits to your name. That doesn't mean that record companies are completely shut out of the loop, however. They're involved from the first step of the process.

Every June, NARAS sends out entry forms to both the record companies and all of its members. Those entry forms allow NARAS members and record labels -- and NARAS sends entry forms to about 800 labels -- to nominate an artist or recording for consideration. NARAS receives back around 15,000 of those entry forms, and from those the first ballot is put together. And this is where the process really starts getting a little subjective.

Grammys are awarded in 95 categories across 22 different fields. Fields are essentially genres -- pop, rock, R&B, country, jazz, Latin, etc. -- but also include nonmusic categories like producing and packaging. Within those fields are the categories. For example, in the "pop" field there are seven different categories: "Best Male Pop Vocal Performance," "Best Female Pop Vocal Performance," "Best Pop Album," etc. Same goes for the rock, R&B, country, and other fields. Suddenly, potential awards start adding up.

All those nominations are hashed out every October when NARAS convenes music experts from all over the country and holes them up in a hotel for two days while they take those 15,000 or so entries and hold screening meetings. At those meetings, screening committees determine whether a song entered in, say, the pop field is actually a pop song. There's a main room, called the core room, where a committee of approximately 60 industry professionals -- senior A&R reps, engineers, artists, generalists -- screens entries into categories: pop, rock, R&B, alternative, hard rock, and metal. In different rooms, various committees of 10-20 experts in jazz, gospel, classical, New Age, Latin, etc., screen entries in those fields. Vice President of Awards for NARAS, Diane Theriot, explains.

"We have the jazz committee and they may listen to something in their room and say, 'Oh no. This isn't jazz, this belongs in New Age.' Then they'll send that product to the New Age room. New Age will listen to it and say, 'We don't agree. We think it's more pop.' They'll send it to the core room, and the core room will listen and say, 'Oh, yeah. It is. You're right.'

"So, everything finds a home through one screening committee or another. Every recording that comes in here for entry is processed one way or another."

This part of the process is what allows Lucinda Williams to end up in two different categories. While one screening committee determined that Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was a contemporary folk record, it also determined that "Can't Let Go" was a rock song. Not surprisingly, the experts' opinions don't always square with the artists' opinions of themselves. Abra Moore's nomination last year was in the "Best Rock Vocal Performance," but as she muses, "I don't really consider myself a rock guy, but that's cool. Any way you can get it."

Once all of those entries are "processed," the first ballot is put together and sent out to NARAS's 10,000 voting members. They then vote for five entries per category. Voting members don't get to vote for everything, though. On the first ballot, a person can only vote in nine of the 22 fields, and there are some restrictions. For example, in the production field, where Grammys in the categories of "Engineer of the Year" and "Producer of the Year" are awarded, NARAS asks that only those members who have qualified in that field vote in those categories. So, on the first ballot, a producer would vote in that field and any eight others as long as they are not similarly restricted.

By capping the number of fields members can vote in, NARAS cuts down on people casting votes in categories which they know little about. Sure, if you're a classical composer and know nothing about heavy metal, you can still vote for Nashville Pussy (nominees for "Best Metal Performance") and who wouldn't want to, but doing so would mean voting in one less field that you're probably more familiar with.

Those first ballots are returned to the accounting firm of Delloite and Touche where the results are tabulated. Every January, then, the top five vote-getters in each category are announced. Answering the question of how the hell John Tesh's Grand Passion was nominated for a Grammy: It was entered, screened, and then chosen by enough of NARAS's 10,000 eligible voting members to be nominated as one of the five best New Age albums last year.

After the nominees are announced, a second ballot with only those five nominees in each category goes out to the voting members. They vote again, but this time are allowed only one vote per category and can only vote in eight of 27 fields. Wait, weren't there originally 22 fields? Yes, but remember there are some things, like packaging and album notes, in which the nominees are determined only by craft committee. Those are now added into the fold. For the final ballot, things are tightened down as there are even more fields, but voters are restricted to fewer of them.

Finally, the last ballots are sent back to Delloite and Touche, where they are once again tabulated. After that, fame and fortune are just an envelope away.

Of course, the process isn't perfect. Perhaps the most infamous Grammy faux pas in recent history was the 1988 awarding of the inaugural "Best Heavy Metal Performance" Grammy to Jethro Tull. That gaffe is still such an ever-present criticism that the mere mention of it prompts The riot to the defensive without the slightest hesitation. "Okay, leave us alone for that one," she utters. "It's over." The Grammys tried to atone for the error by awarding the next three metal Grammys to Metallica.

What's more perplexing than that, however -- hell, you hand out dozens and dozens of awards for 40 years and you're bound to drop a few every now and then -- is how a truly lackluster album like Paul McCartney's Flaming Pie (a critical and commercial flop) received a nomination for "Album of the Year," as it did last year. The answer, it seems, is that for the four big categories, "Record of the Year," "Song of the Year," "Album of the Year," and "Best New Artist," the nominations are not necessarily determined strictly by the vote. They're tweaked a bit.

Concerned that many of the more commercially successful albums and artists aren't being represented by nominations, NARAS convenes a special, blue-ribbon panel of 25 experts to make sure that the nominees in those four categories are more in tune with what's going on outside in the real world. Instead of automatically taking the top five vote-getters and making those the nominations, they put the top 20 vote-getters up on a board for consideration.

For instance, if the nominations for "Record of the Year" had come back, and Willie Nelson's version of "The Maker" had been the top vote-getter, it's possible that it would have been passed over for a nomination because it's not reflective of what's happening on the pop charts. In the top categories, then, the nominees go through both a voting process and yet another screening process. How, then, does a bad album like Flaming Pie survive both processes? Good question. Again Theriot:

"We're usually pretty good about standing by the nominations," she says, "because for the most part, our nominating members are pretty good at this. They are the most informed people in the music business."

Or are they?

This year there were 726 entries for "Album of the Year." To hear that many albums in a year, you would have to listen to two new albums a day, every day. Even with no days off, you'd still fall four albums short. Who listens to that much new material? Not many. KGSR's program director Jody Denberg estimates he listens to around 1,500 new albums a year, but as a radio station PD, that's a major component of his job. Music critics also have albums by the dozens sent to them on a weekly basis, so it's conceivable that at least some of them sample high numbers of albums every year, but remember, most radio and print professionals aren't eligible voters. Actually, Denberg is eligible to become a member; he has simply chosen not to join. "They've asked me numerous times," says Denberg, "but I'm not much of a joiner."

Theriot concedes that 700 albums is an exceptionally large number of albums to be familiar with. "Is any one member familiar with all of them? Probably not. But most our members who are somehow active in the music industry are familiar with many, many of the albums or songs."

"Many, many" might be an overstatement.

John Croslin, who has around 20 producer credits to his name, including major label releases by Spoon and the Damnations, estimates he listens to 10-20 new albums a year. Why so few? A producer might listen to music all day, but he or she is in the studio listening to the same album all day, every day for weeks at a time. When asked how a producer or engineer or even a musician who spends time working in the studio is going to hear anywhere near 700 albums, Croslin plainly states, "They don't. They don't. No way."

The bottom line is that most albums entered for nomination in the marquee categories are never heard by a large percentage of NARAS voters -- which means small, indie-label stuff doesn't stand a chance. In the top fields, there are a handful of nominations from independent labels, and this year, only one of them is really an indie artists: Ani DiFranco for "Glass House" from Little Plastic Castle on Righteous Babe Records. The others, like "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," from a Pete Seeger tribute on Appleseed Recordings, often feature major label talent; that song is a duet by Jackson Browne and the ever-present Bonnie Raitt, which is perhaps more proof for the "fraternity" theory, but not exactly indie fodder.

Some of the problem falls to the small labels themselves. According to Rob Miller of Chicago's Bloodshot Records, the "Home of Insurgent Country," they don't even submit albums. "It never occurred to me that anyone would want to know what we think," admits Miller. Like the hockey player said, however: 100% of the shots you don't take don't go in. Even the indies who do submit entries have little to no chance of receiving nominations, much less winning a major category, again, simply because they're unknown to most voters. Big deal, right? There's no way some album that nobody has heard of is the "Best Record of the Year" anyway.

Well, you could spend eons trying to define the criteria that determine "best," but if Nirvana's Nevermind had been released on Sub Pop instead of DGC and had only been heard by a few thousand instead of millions, would it have changed the face of popular music and given birth to a radio format? No way. Part of what makes great albums great is the impact they have, and in order to make an impact, it has to be heard.

Yet to suggest that the industry professionals don't know what they're doing is a bit absurd. Just because they're not intimately familiar with 726 albums doesn't meant they are not qualified to vote for five albums they do know about. It's just that they're likely to be most familiar with the commercially successful releases. As for the people who might be more familiar with more albums, maybe it's just as well they don't vote. As Denberg notes, "Critics tend to be elitists."

Still, if not inherently flawed, the process always seems to produce some interesting results. In 1978, A Taste of Honey beat out Elvis Costello and the Cars among others for "Best New Artist." While Alanis Morissette has five little gramophone statues, Roy Acuff, the Beach Boys, Velvet Underground, Neil Young, Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, and Buck Owens have a combined, yes, combined zero (special achievement awards notwithstanding). There is something seriously wrong in a world where Alanis Morissette and Hillary Clinton ("Best Spoken Word on Non-musical Album," 1996) have Grammys while neither Buck Owens nor Elvis Costello does. Of course there is also something right about it: Cher has no Grammys.

"There's plenty of shit that could be better," concedes Ray Benson, "but if you look at the American Music Awards and the People's Choice Awards, those are strictly popularity contests ... This is not a popularity contest 100% of the time. It is half of the time.

"The American Music Awards are a popularity numbers contest. How many people bought the record? The big [Grammy] categories, yeah, they are just a little bit better than the American Music Awards, as far as I'm concerned, but the other categories, these are people that never get recognized anywhere anytime.

"Look at the blues category, look at the jazz category. It's really important for those real American genres that get no exposure on national TV. The Grammys do that. It's the only national network show that showcases classical music and jazz in its format. That in itself is amazing ... It's not an exact science, but it works."

For everything that might be wrong with the process (John Tesh), in the big picture it does work to a certain extent. As Denberg notes, "There's no question that Lauryn Hill released the best record of the year and it got the most nominations, so they got it right there. And look at the contemporary folk albums -- Lucinda [Williams], Lyle [Lovett], Emmylou [Harris], Billy Bragg and Wilco. Those are the records."

Then again, maybe the awards themselves are secondary to what else goes on at the Grammys. Says Benson, "You sit there and talk to guys you never get to see because our disciplines are so segregated. You know, I get to see country musicians all the time, but jazz guys, we never play the same places. When I go to the Grammys, I get to see these guys and talk to them and exchange ideas, just interact. To me that's half the fun of the Grammys."

The other half must be winning, either that or just getting good seats.


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