Grammys ’02 rewards the big sellers

Keys, U2, 'O Brother' dominate, a nod to tradition and strong craftsmanship

The music industry likes concepts it can get its arms around. So it was hardly surprising on Feb. 27 that when the 44th annual Grammy Awards went down, three embraceable acts split the votes and walked away with the lion’s share of the awards.

Alicia Keys — the 21-year-old singer whose style draws heavily on classic soul — was the big winner, nabbing five trophies including new artist and song of the year. U2, in a week in which Time magazine put the Irish band’s front man on its cover more for politics than music, walked away with four: record of the year for “Walk On,” pop performance for “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get out Of”; rock perf for “Elevation”; and rock album for the disc on which the songs appear, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.”

And the soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the biggest-selling soundtrack and country album of 2001 despite no radio airplay, took home six wins. The disc nabbed album of the year and the compilation soundtrack award; the Soggy Bottom Boys version of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” earned the country collaboration nod and Ralph Stanley was male country winner for his version of “O Death.”

The soundtrack to the documentary of the first “O Brother” concert, “Down From the Mountain,” took home the traditional folk award and T Bone Burnett, whose eligible productions consisted of “O Brother,” “Mountain” and a disc by wife Sam Phillips, was tapped producer of the year. Allison Krauss and Union Station, among “O Brother’s” stars, won four awards.

Voters made nice with other acts after allowing U2, Keys and “O Brother” to dominate the general categories. Taking home genre-specific trophies were several acts nominated for the big four: Outkast won in rap, Bob Dylan in folk, Train in rock and Nelly Furtado in pop.

India.Arie, who surprised many onlookers when she nabbed seven nominations, was shut out.

In all, 101 awards were handed out in ceremonies hosted by Jon Stewart at Los Angeles’ Staples Center. To be eligible, a song or album had to be released between Oct. 1, 2000 and Sept. 30, 2001.

In a year that saw no embarrassments among the winning songs and albums, it’s also clear that the music industry is aligning itself with the work that toes company lines. Keys, for example, burst on the scene last year seemingly out of nowhere when her J Records debut, “Songs in A Minor,” debuted at No. 1. She has had a recording contract for four years and was among the artists J founder Clive Davis brought with him from Arista.

Fresh as she appears, her image, sound and songwriting have been well honed by the pros around her; Keys’ trophies are a victory for artist development, a statement that money well spent on talented individuals can yield returns.

U2, which posted the first back-to-back record of the year awards since Roberta Flack in 1972 and 1973, re-established itself in 2001 as a major concert force and Bono, the band’s leader, used his revived platform to influence change in the world. His stage has been expanded to include political forums as world debt has become his crusade.

The U2 wins were a celebration of how a band can do things the right way — make great music and use their celebrity wisely — an idea that fell out of favor while boy bands and young rappers have been dominating sales charts.

For all their muckraking, though, U2 has never gone against the record companies themselves, moving from Island to Interscope in the Polygram-Universal merger and returning to the rock ‘n’ roll sound that made them the biggest band of the 1980s.

When rock voters had to vote for acts other than U2, they turned to bands that have benefited from heavy record company investments, Train and Lenny Kravitz, as well as acts that have delivered considerable record sales like Linkin Park, creators of last year’s biggest seller and winner in the hard rock category.

The record business was under fire this year as the kudocast played out against a backdrop in which a number of veteran acts were escalating efforts to alter standard artist contracts by appearing before government committees and staging four benefit concerts Feb. 26. The artists’ rights issues have been welcomed by bizzers such as J Records prexy Davis and Grammy honcho Michael Greene, and many of Tuesday’s performers were highly visible at the awards — Don Henley, Sheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks, among others.

None of the presenters or winners raised any artists’ rights issues onstage; only Greene proffered a cause — stop illegal downloading of music off the Internet.

“O Brother” got its start as an outsider’s project — a soundtrack of long-forgotten mountain music, blues and gospel from the late 1920s and 1930s — and once it started to gather steam at retail, Nashville began to accept its viability. Country radio continued to ignore the music, but slowly the album began to get the tag of “a bluegrass album” even though that’s only a small portion of the album’s music.

Chris Thomas King, the blues guitarist who played Tommy Johnson in the film, says the win, “Gives hope that business isn’t all business. Sometimes it’s heart and soul.”

“O Brother” won over fans with its innocent charms though it was aggressively marketed the old-fashioned way. For starters, it benefited from Buena Vista’s marketing efforts and the filmmakers backed two high-profile concerts featuring the film’s acts at Gotham’s Carnegie Hall and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, a docu of which became “Down From the Mountain.”

Many of the film’s acts embarked on a high-profile joint tour in January and February, an effort that at times helped album sales rise even though the album had been in stores for 13 months.

It’s that sort of longevity that record business strives for in all its artists. They just have to realize, as the teen pop fad fades, that it can’t always be controlled.

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