Nashville holds sway as the recording academy diversifies

While L.A., with all of its attendant glamour and glitz, is often viewed as the recording capitol of the world, it was the heartland that held sway over this year’s Grammy Awards. Taylor Swift, in accepting the night’s top kudo — album of the year — talked about her excitement in bringing the award “back to Nashville.”

It was also great news for the Recording Academy, which has taken pains to diversify its geographic outreach and attract a more youthful demographic.

With eight of the decade’s 10 most-played artists hailing from the country western world, the increasing power of heartland music helped drive Sunday night’s Grammy ratings to a 35% surge over 2009, with almost 26 million viewers tuning in, according to Nielsen. When the Dixie Chicks and Carrie Underwood were big winners in 2007, three million more viewers were attracted than the previous year.

Kings of Leon, which hauled in three Grammys on Sunday night, including record of the year and best rock song — in a field that included Swift, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, U2 and Bruce Springsteen — is a Nashville-based band whose roots drew from Southern rock, among other influences. And the Zac Brown Band, which won for best new artist, is an Atlanta-based country outfit that wears its down-home patriotism and good-ol’-boy values on its sleeve.

“I think it’s part of the whole American mindset,” said Glenn Schick, president of the Academy’s Atlanta branch. “The country in general has gotten more conservative; country (music) is more popular. Whereas it used to be a small outpost, it’s really a majority of the country now.”

The Recording Academy’s Nashville branch, at 2,600 members, is the organization’s third largest behind L.A. (4,800) and New York (3,000). When Nashville’s numbers are combined with that of the other southern branches — Atlanta at 1,200; Florida (1,250); Texas (which also serves Oklahoma and New Mexico) at 1,000; and Memphis (840) — the influence of the heartland is hard to deny.

Of the Academy’s approximately 18,000 members, 12,500 have voting power, according to its president and CEO, Neil Portnow. Since most of the chapters don’t distinguish between voting and associate members, it is nearly impossible to determine how many participants swayed the Grammy outcome. The organization also doesn’t release those figures.

Over the past 10 years, however, the so-called Big Four labels all have opened offices in Nashville. Agencies such as WME, CAA and ICM also have satellite posts in the Grand Ol’ Opry city.

The southern influence on this year’s Grammy wins is undeniable, according to Schick, who points to such artists as Ne-Yo, Usher, Lady Antebellum and Sugarland as hailing from Georgia.

“Atlanta had nominees in over 50% of all the categories in total,” he says, “and we had 30-something nominees regardless. I know Nashville always represents well and Florida and Atlanta and other parts of the Southeast have become players in the game right now.”

The Academy is quick to dismiss the notion that music sales, or popularity in general, can be equated with Grammy accolades.

Yet, Swift, Gaga and Kings were all Top 10 album sellers for the competing year. Swift’s “Fearless” outsold all other LPs in 2009.

But Bill Freimuth, VP of awards for the Recording Academy, calls her album win and her best-selling status “coincidental,” and points out that the Academy’s seven nominating committees were formulated in the late ’80s partly to negate “the pure popularity vote” and ensure that the nominees are “really good, and not just by a famous, well-liked person or group.”

“In fact,” Freimuth adds, “we ask (committee members) not to factor (commercial sales) in purposefully. Our guidelines that we give to all these people say ‘vote by your conscience alone, based on quality alone.”

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