Strong crop of female artists vye for major awards

The 51st edition of the Grammy Awards, largely expected to be a good year for female artists, will get two shots at primetime audiences, a first for any kudocast. The opening act is a concert on Dec. 3 featuring past winners that will include the announcement of the nominations; the headliner is the awards ceremony of Feb. 8.

It’s a first in the awards world, wrapping noms with performances and broadcasting the affair as a special, and one that allows the Recording Academy to direct attention to the opening of its Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles.

“It will be a unique time for us to showcase the museum and scream about it,” Recording Academy CEO and president Neil Portnow tells Variety.

CBS, artists, labels and managers have been extremely receptive to the idea of a televised concert, Portnow notes, as it lands in the prime music-selling period of the year. Traditionally, noms are announced in a morning ceremony at a club or hotel ballroom, and television is generally limited to the nighttime entertainment news magazines and cable news outlets.

“If it works out and meets expectations, we’ll do it annually,” Portnow says. “It’s a chance to do something vastly different from other awards shows.”

Among the performers booked for the noms show are Grammy winners Celine Dion, the Foo Fighters, B.B. King and John Mayer, plus a nominee from the 50th edition, Taylor Swift. The event is a fund-raiser for the museum, which opens to the public the next day, and tickets have been on sale for the concert since late October.

Last year’s reading of the nominees, which is handled by about 10 musicians, produced a moment of genuine shock — for Herbie Hancock. He was stunned that his “River: The Joni Letters” was up for album of the year; the look of shock was even greater when he won in February.

This year, it’s highly likely the list of multiple nominees will weigh heavily toward women. Figure that Alicia Keys, Alison Krauss, Leona Lewis, Duffy and Beyonce are almost locks; M.I.A., Adele, Natasha Bedingfield, Sarah Bareilles and Estelle might also hear their names read more than once.

Eight of the year’s 10 biggest-selling singles are by women, among them Lewis, Bedingfield and Rihanna. While the Grammys veer toward artistic achievement, there is still a sense that a record will not receive a groundswell of support unless it has had some commercial success.

The last two years have seen three of the big awards go to individuals connected with a single project: Amy Winehouse this year and the Dixie Chicks the year before. One has to go back to the 46th edition to find the top four awards — album, song, record and new artist — being won by four different artists.

What is likely to play out is the rewarding of albums and artists who have displayed staying power over the last six to 12 months. And an interesting tack has been developing to bring freshness to older albums and position established artists prior to a fourth-quarter release. We’ll call it the September Strategy.

An increasing number of acts are releasing singles in September, the last month in the eligibility period for the Grammys. For some, it is an advance of an album, a strategy that delivered Grammy wins to Keys and the duo of Krauss and Robert Plant.

Keys, who nabbed two R&B awards for “No One” last year, will have other singles and her album in contention this year, as will the Plant-Krauss album “Raising Sand.” Last year the duo won the pop collaboration with vocals trophy, the 20th win for her but only the second for him. Their collaboration plays to Grammy voting tendencies: It involves an overlooked legend and a Recording Academy fave.

The other September Strategy involves new activity for an act whose album has been available for more than half the eligibility period. It can come in the form of a single release: Mayer’s “Daughters,” for example, was released to radio at the end of the eligibility period, and when ballots were in voters’ hands it was the one contender receiving airplay.

Another move involves touring through key cities in the U.S. along with securing high-profile television gigs. If Duffy and Adele have their names read in categories other than new artist, some credit rests with their September visibility: Duffy was on tour, and Adele performed on the “Saturday Night Live” show that featured Sarah Palin.

A more subtle binding factor among the albums by the aforementioned femmes is the professionalism of the recordings themselves. Grammy voters traditionally embrace albums and singles that reflect traditional talents — production values, the arrangements, songcraft and musicianship — certainly elements that landed album victories in the last eight years for Hancock, Steely Dan and Norah Jones.

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