Recording Academy eyes future of downloads, mixtapes

This year marks a turning point of sorts for the Grammys, and the organization behind it, the 18,000-member strong Recording Academy.

This could be the last year that the record business, as we know it, ascends the stage at Staple Center, which hosts the ceremony Sunday night, to bask in self-adulation.

Earlier this week, the all-star “Hope for Haiti Now” topped the album charts at 171,000 downloads, becoming the first-ever digital-only collection to bow at No. 1. In December, Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” notched 610,000 downloads in the course of a week for the biggest track sales week by any female artist in history.

Which begs the question: With the Recording Academy’s previous emphasis on, well, recordings as physical packages — with teams of producers and the requisite studio polish — what will be the new definition of a recording? And will digital-only productions threaten the label execs, producers and technicians who make up the bulk of Academy voters?

Already, there are signs that the Recording Academy is breaking free from its traditional moorings.

For the first time, it’s embraced, in the rap solo category, two songs that originated as free, self-produced mixtapes: Kid Cudi’s “Day N’ Night” and Drake’s “Best I Ever Had.” Granted, both were subsequently re-released in standard physical form with the backing of major labels. But their very presence among the contenders suggests a more forward-looking outlook by an organization thought strictly old school by many.

“In the past, to the extent that distribution models have changed, we’ve changed the way we review digital releases,” said Neil Portnow, prexy-CEO of the Recording Academy. “A number of years ago, we allowed the inclusion of albums and tracks that were distributed in a digital fashion. We try to be nimble, and certainly, if not ahead of the curve, with the curve, as things change.”

And with specialty retailers giving way to big-box stores like Target and Walmart, it’s no coincidence that the Recording Academy is directing viewers to Target for the 3-D glasses they’ll need to get the full effect of the Grammycast’s Michael Jackson tribute.

The Grammys will need those hipster Target shoppers and Twitter users if it wants to overcome general awards attrition due to the saturation of kudocasts over the last decade, and a public used to seeing ubiquitous acts like Grammy nominees the Black Eye Peas and Taylor Swift with the punch of a keystroke.

Over the last 10 years, average viewership for the telecast has been about 22 million annually. Grammy viewership peaked at 51.7 million in 1984, the year of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” when the Big Three nets still dominated the airwaves. No year has come even close since.

The Recording Academy has also sought to reach out via Twitter, Facebook and MySpace to younger fans — the very consumers most inclined to buy their music electronically. In a similar vein, it has initiated a Grammy University Network, with 4,000 members affiliated with 350 universities. “It’s a way of getting closer to that generation,” explained Portnow. “For us, it’s a farm team. Hopefully, a lot of those young people will actually wind up with careers in music and will already be part of our organization.”

This, along with the Academy’s diversity outreach — encompassing age, ethnicity gender and genre of music — has resulted, says Portnow, in a crop of 2009 Grammy nominees with a decidedly younger skew. Artists like Lady Gaga, Maxwell and the Kings of Leon have supplanted more established names like Springsteen, U2 and Dylan in the top four categories.

“With anything institutional like the Academy,” said Portnow, “you have to freshen up, reinvent and continue to put a more interesting, more contemporary face on what you do so you not only hold and maintain your existing audience but you attract a new and younger one.”

(Christopher Morris contributed to this report.)

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