How Do Grammy Nominations Really Work? Digging Into The Process Behind the Big Results

 

It's the start of Grammy season, believe it or not. The eligibility period of the 2021 Grammys has been closed for a while and nominations are set to release tomorrow, so now it's time to start campaigning. Maybe you've seen the posters floating around on Twitter complete with some flattering stats and a few good one-liners from magazines that covered the album. Maybe you're confused at the idea of campaigning for a Grammy nomination in the first place. It turns out that the entire Grammys process is far more complex (and political) than you might have imagined. There's a lot that goes into walking away with a gold gramophone. 

Considering it's the start of campaigning leading up to the ceremony towards the end of January, I thought I'd make a post explaining everything that goes into the road to the Grammys. Buckle up, because it's a very long ride. 

The process starts by making sure you're eligible to submit. You might be surprised to learn that the eligibility period runs from September 1, 2019- August 31, 2020. While it makes sense to give time for the multiple rounds of voting, it does leave albums that feel like they came out ages ago up against albums that came out only a couple months ago. (Was anyone else wondering how Hollywood Is Bleeding and "Circles" is still eligible even though Post Malone was all over last year's Grammys? It came out September 6th of 2019, barely making the cutoff). This does keep the field narrower and allows artists to time their releases for optimal Grammy odds. While the field is packed this year with contenders like Taylor Swift, Halsey, Dua Lipa, and Harry Styles, if Adele releases a new project this year, she won't be considered with them. That'll improve her odds heading into next year. 

There are other eligibility requirements beyond the release date. It has to be generally distributed either in a nation-wide brick and mortar campaign or on streaming services that offer paid subscriptions and have been around over a year. Think Spotify, Apple Music, and maybe Tidal. They also have to have an International Standard Recording Code. There are even more requirements about the quality level of the digital recording from a kHz prospective. And, if you want to submit an album, it has to have at least five tracks running 15 minutes total or a 30 minute total run time with no track number requirement. This sets down an interesting line for an "album" when the variation is as wide as Lil Nas X getting nominated with just under nineteen minutes of content while most albums run between 30 and 45 minutes and artists like Harry Styles are putting out seven minute songs. 

Now, who gets to submit these artists and recordings for consideration? A couple different people. There's the obvious, including record labels and management companies, along with anyone who is a member of the Recording Academy. If you're a member, you can even submit your own songs for consideration. These are Professionals and Voting Members, as specified on the Grammy's own website. 

The first round of entries is submitted online in two rounds, either in late June to early July or mid July to early August. These rounds sort out technical issue and help weed out who gets actually submitted in later rounds since they report getting over 20,000 different submissions. Approval in this round basically means that you haven't violated any terms, and your entry is finalized. That means you go onto the ballot where voters decide who get the nominations in the first place. I don't think the average music consumer realizes just how difficult it is to score even a nomination in one of eight slots in each category coming from a pack of 20,000 in the beginning. This is the first step on the road to scoring a Grammy. 

There are two rounds of ballots to get on. The first is where voters (artists, producers, songwriters, and engineers) decide who should get an official nomination in any of the 84 individual award categories. After that, voters get a final ballot that they use to vote for the winner of the actual award given out on January 31st. It's not surprising, but I find it funny that these highly important ballots simply live on a website that voters log into. For some reason, I imagined a ton of voters in boardrooms and paper ballots with fancy gold leaf. These grand moments are always more simple than they seem from the outside.  

Now let's get into the sticky part that no one really talks about. The Voting and Solicitation rules. You are technically allowed to solicit and promote yourself to voters. They spell out that the only thing to influence a vote should be the merit of the piece. Because voters come from within the industry and likely know many of the possible nominees, there are explicit rules on what should not influence your decision. Your vote should never be based on friendships, the label, or even sales. It's interesting they spell out a hard line against sales/popularity. That's what sets the Grammys apart, though. They are the only show that doesn't deal in a popularity contest from the populace, only the industry personnel. Just another reason it always pays to be nice to every industry person you meet. Further, you can't bribe a voter, and voters aren't allowed to agree amongst themselves to vote in a block. 

What can you do to promote yourself/your artist? A whole lot, apparently. And I can't imagine that some of these policies don't sway beliefs. All of these initiatives are called For Your Consideration (or FYC). You can throw parties, but voters have to pay for full tickets in full, and you can't give a voter comped food or drinks or anything to do with money that could be seen as buying a vote. You can offer voters tickets or meet and greets as long as it doesn't seem to be a large-scale FYC campaign. While this theoretically isn't supposed to sway votes, aren't you more likely to care about, even subconsciously, someone you've met? And, if the goal is achieved, someone you probably like? Artists can also market to voters through social media, emails, and more, as long as they have the choice to opt out. You can send artwork, brief descriptions of the song or artist, links to promotional websites or the song, links to voting guidelines, lists of all the creators on the recording, references to past nominations. In other words, name recognition is key, just like with political voting. While there's a balance and you don't want to annoy the voters, there's something to be said for making sure your name is out there. 

Over the last few weeks, I've seen a couple funny instances of photos surfacing from Harry Styles fans whose parents are among these esteemed Grammy voters showing off the pamphlets and materials they received with glee. I wonder if voters' children ever factor into a particularly difficult choice. Regardless, it's an interesting insight into the 2020 style of campaigning where face to face meetings and corralling voters to concerts and parties is off the table. 

The Grammys is very intent on keeping everything legit seeming, though, so there are rules about what you can't do. Don't call a voter. I can appreciate their hard line against telemarketing. Artists aren't allowed to play dirty. No trashing competitors, no overhyping yourself, no misrepresenting the honors you've won, and no personal signatures or begging for votes (which is a hilarious addition). The line is a strange one between what's okay and what's not. It leaves a lot of room for crafty management and label teams to promote and campaign on artist's behalf. I wish there was a way to get data on how successful different types of campaigns are. 

Beyond your own initiatives, there are a couple other ways to get voters eyes on you. This was the most interesting part that I uncovered digging through all the technical stuff. The biggest one is the Billboard GRAMMY issue that gets sent to all voters unless they opt out. The Recording Academy isn't affiliated with it, and I guess it's on the publicist to get the artist into Billboard, but this seems like a major place to guarantee new eyeballs. This opportunity also comes with what looks like an endorsement from the professionals at Billboard. There's also a FYC Recording Academy Website feature that members can submit to that is meant to offer some equitable, free options to promote yourself. This note is an interesting one and points out possible inequities beyond those that are already rampant and apparent. As a newer artist, a smaller artist, or someone who is independent, there are probably less resources allocated to campaigning than a mega star like Harry Styles or Taylor Swift. (I don't mean to keep using their names, and I have no clue how Taylor is promoting, but they're two examples of artists who have the funds and label backing to get themselves in front of every voter. Most artists don't have that level of monetary support for millions of fliers or coveted media placement, especially right now). 

Finally, there are more public facing pushes that happen around Grammy season. Artist often ramp up interviews in that time to get their name circulating publicly more, and possibly directly into voter's line of sight. Beyond that, new content can be pushed with the Grammy voter's past taste in consideration. To go back to Harry Styles, the popular view on the reasoning behind his "Golden" music video release recently and single was to further contribute to his Grammy campaign. "Golden" isn't the most commercial song, and the way it was playlisted, the goal didn't seem to be a radio number 1. Instead, it closed the era with an artsy album cut and Italian video that got his name circulating for days. Also, consider his splashy, beautiful Vogue cover. While there are so many factors that went into putting out the magazine at that time, Harry is definitely breaking his months long silence, even as he starts filming his new movie. He's also performing at the Jingle Ball virtually on December 10th, even though he's avoided all virtual performances until now. This is a detail that has made Taylor's continued silence all the more confusing considering how well known it is that the Grammys have always been a personal indicator of success for her. I hope that means something is on the way post announcement or that Taylor's finally realized that she's an amazing artist, new awards or not. 

At the end of the day, every year, people will yell that the Grammys are rigged, and while it might seem like it, it's hard to give a definitive answer to how legitimate these results are. To their credit, the Grammys are the most transparent about their voting policies and rules. You know that they're not bought like some shows (most of them, honestly), but who can say how much influence the campaigning will have. Like with anything from job applications to college applications to prom queen, humanizing yourself to the judges is going to subliminally, at least, help your cause. These voters are industry people who have connections, friendships, and relationships within the industry they're judging in. Even when we try our best to be impartial, there's always some bias in there. None of these people can deliver the definitively best album produced in the eligibility period. Music is subjective, and there is so much variation for a reason. It's about personal taste at the end of the day. 

And, regardless of their impartiality, there is so much that goes on behind the curtain. In the big four categories (record, album, song, and best new artist), it seems like an open field, eligible for anyone, but the big pop albums are vying for fewer than 8 spots. There's generally an unspoken place reserved for a rock album or alternative, and there's generally a place saved for a country album or artist. In recent years, the Grammys tends to honor songs or albums that are socially significant and consider diversity in making their choices to combat their poor past record. If you're interested in those unspoken spaces, listen to Billboard's Pop Shop Podcast from this week or check out Billboard's list of predictions and their professional reasonings because it's quite insightful. 

And there is a layer of some awkward collective bias that seems to consume the 12,000 eligible voters. For instance, Halsey's never won a Grammy despite being wildly successful, and I haven't seen a prediction page that includes Manic, or any of her songs, in the main categories despite it being one of the most successful albums by a woman this year. At this point, it's a running (sad) joke between Halsey and her fans. You'll also notice in these predictions they state Taylor's place in the nominations is heavily based on how much Grammy favor she'll wrack up this year. She's made an album perfectly to Grammy taste (Bon Iver, who is featured on folklore, was nominated last year in multiple big 4 categories), she's gone from Grammy darling to blocked out by the Recording Academy as she's been snubbed ever since her 1989 sweep. Harry Styles, favored in all predictions, is also facing an uphill battle of losing the boyband stigma in the eyes of the academy who ignored his debut album, despite it being critically well received. Those favored this year, like Billie Eilish and Post Malone, are the same artists who dominated last year's show. I'm hoping the Grammys gets more modern and less predictable in future years. They'll have to if they want to remain relevant in a music scene that is shedding tradition every day and making its own rules. How do they continue to ensure that their elite opinions matter in the industry and the broader culture? They must ensure we keep affording them the same power they've always wielded. 

This is all to say I have deeply mixed feelings heading into the Grammy announcements tomorrow. This year has been incredible for music (despite all the ways its been horrible). There are too many amazing albums to fit in the 8 open spots in each category. Inevitably, highly deserving songs and albums will be passed up even getting nominated, and I'll be disappointed even if one of my favorite artists wins because there are others who deserve it so much. There isn't one clear frontrunner for me this year, personally or in what I predict the Academy will do. I don't see the point in giving the Grammys so much power when they're so deeply riddled with problems and sometimes out of touch with the wider scene. But I also know how important they currently are and what a badge of honor it is for artists to win them. For that reason, I'll be elated when artists I love score well earned nominations, and I'll be fuming for those who don't make the list. But, at the end of the day, it doesn't make one person's art worth more and one's worth less. I hope everyone can keep that in mind as we watch everything play out tomorrow. 

Can you tell I'm nervous to watch the nominations? If you want to bite your nails along with me, the nominations will be announced via livestream at 9AM PST/12PM EST on the Grammys' website. According to the website, this will last about an hour and feature talent such as Dua Lipa and Imogen Heap. There will be a press release directly after to cover the categories in the 84 that aren't covered at the event. All information can be found here. I'll be working on a post with my thoughts on all the nominees (I won't be making predictions yet though) throughout the day and will hopefully have it out by the afternoon. Make sure you're subscribed by email to the blog or following me on Twitter (@mslaurenbrice) to make sure you don't miss it. 

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Sources:

https://www.grammy.com/recording-academy/faq

https://www.grammy.com/voting-and-solicitation-guidelines

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