NARAS showcase faces new market forces

With the Grammy Awards’ golden anniversary just one year away, the ceremony is unquestionably wrapped in a rich tapestry of history. But in an era when the music award landscape is getting increasingly crowded, is the kudofest’s future as bright as its storied past?

Although audience interest has been piqued to some degree by the recruitment of the reunited Police, who’ll open the CBS broadcast Sunday, the show doesn’t seem to have qualified as must-see TV for much of middle America in recent years.

Aside from competition with such ratings juggernauts as “American Idol,” part of the Grammys’ struggle to stay relevant might have to do with an almost bewildering number of categories — 108 total (more than 90 are given out in a two-hour ceremony before the telecast) — many of which appear to overlap.

Another debilitating factor is an unfortunate time frame for eligibility that shaves three months off the end of the year — a holiday period that accounts for roughly 30% of annual disc sales. This often results in nominations for records and artists long after their sales have played out, amounting to a ceremony that can seem like old news.

Chicago Sun-Times pop music critic Jim DeRogatis attributes the Grammys’ embarrassment of riches as a function of the increasing compartmentalization of the current music scene. “Everything exists in its own narrow cubbyhole these days,” he says, “but you’re talking about an audience that can choose to listen to nothing but crunk, or bluegrass, or whatever, with no crossover at all.”

Recording Academy prexy Neil Portnow, however, says the Grammys’ catchall approach is more a matter of adopting to an ever-evolving business, while making the current tally of categories a fluid number. “We want to be all-inclusive, and we take a little bit of time before adding or taking away,” he says. “If a category musically evolves, then we have (to react) to keep apples with apples. If alternative turns out to not mean what it used to, we’ll change. It’s more logical than creating new shows” to honor different genres of music.

But that wait-and-see attitude is the crux of a long-standing complaint lodged against the Grammys – that it’s more reactive than proactive. It has certainly improved that reputation in recent years, distributing lifetime achievement awards to artists who’d been overlooked for decades of work — including Bob Dylan in 1991 and jazz giant Sonny Rollins in 2004.

“The people voting seem to be chronically out of touch, as they’ve proven by heaping honors on acts long past their prime,” says DeRogatis. “Constantly playing catch-up means you’ll never really honor the best music of the year.”

As for the eligibility issue, it’s partly a result of external factors. When the Oscars were moved up to February from March, CBS and the Grammys followed suit, moving the telecast to the first two weeks of February. But one thing the Oscars don’t have to deal with is the sheer deluge of entrants.

“There were 15,500 entries in the first round, and they all had to be verified for eligibility and screened,” Portnow says, explaining the logic behind an eligibility period that includes three months of one year and nine of the next. “With the telecast, we’re pretty locked in the way we are now. The problem is we need the amount of time we have to do the business. To compress it would be a risky move that would make room for error.”

Like all risks, however, the process does have its downside. Given the eligibility cutoff date of Sept. 30, late-year entries with Grammy potential carry over into the following year, resulting in contenders whose heat could very well have expired by the time the next wave of nominees is announced.

Portnow says the kudocast’s producers are making efforts to battle fatigue by encouraging performers to showcase a current single instead of trotting out a song with thousands of spins under its belt.

“I appreciate the fact that they’re interested in keeping the Grammy brand vibrant,” adds Lee Trink, president, Capitol Music Group. “It’s necessary to work on reinvigorating sales to new demos, and that’s something they continue to do very well.”

If the Grammys’ travails have resulted in up-and-down ratings, they haven’t dampened industry enthusiasm for the ceremony, which is still seen as the ultimate stepping-stone for rising artists.

“So many people are introduced to an artist on the Grammys that it can be a real turning point,” says Trink. “Even if the industry is well aware of an artist who’s gone gold, or even platinum, that’s a small percentage of the public. So, for an artist like Corinne Bailey Rae, who’s nominated (in the best new artist category) and performing, it could end up being the perfect storm.”

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