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Revamped Grammys calls for more trims

Grammy Awards 2012

When the Recording Academy announced last spring it was reducing the number of Grammy categories by almost a third, it didn’t take long for artists to get up in arms. Some alleged the cuts unfairly targeted ethnic minorities because of eliminations in Latin, R&B, Hawaiian and Native American categories. Others said it’s unfair for lesser-known artists to have to compete against bigger names. It even resulted in a class-action lawsuit filed by Latin jazz musicians against the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

However, many in the industry — even those with a stake in the game — wonder whether NARAS has gone far enough, and if further cuts should be made. “The fact remains that there are still 78 categories, which is a very diverse selection of genre, performance and technical recognition,” says Kris Chen, head of the U.S. arm of the XL label that co-released (with Columbia) one of this year’s most-nominated albums, Adele’s “21.” “The Golden Globes, Oscars and American Music Awards combined don’t have as many categories as the Grammys,” he points out, and it’s true.

Gary Bongiovanni, Pollstar editor in chief, says, “It seems like the number of categories they’ve gotten up to was a bit excessive. Not to pick on polka, but do you really need to give an award to polka artists? People like to win awards, but it got to be too ponderous.”

The Grammys began in 1958 with just 28 categories, which ballooned to a whopping 109 by 2011, far surpassing the Oscars (24) and the Golden Globes (26). Even Recording Academy VP Bill Freimuth recognizes things were getting out of hand. “They’ve been growing in a way that was largely unstructured — one category at a time,” he says. “We ended up with something uneven from genre to genre. There wasn’t a lot of balance or parity.” As a result, the Academy conducted a large-scale, two-year evaluation that resulted in this year’s restructuring.

Dave DiMartino, executive editor of Yahoo! Music who has covered the Grammys for several years, says it’s good to see categories such as hard rock and metal performance combined, but it’s worth taking it a step further. “It got to be headache-inducing to consider whether Scorpions in the year 2000 should be considered heavy metal, rock or hard rock … it was splitting hairs for idiotic reasons,” he says. “So there’s that surplus of categories on one end and an incredible overlapping on the other. And I don’t even want to go into the hair-splitting that goes on between the best pop performance and the best R&B performance.”

Someone like Mariah Carey, for example, is largely considered a pop performer, but since she has R&B roots, she can be nominated in both categories. And she’s not the only one. Pop vocal album and album of the year resulted in multiple nominations for Adele, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Bruno Mars this year, but does anyone think Adele would have gotten nominated for anything if it wasn’t for her voice?

And while there really is a distinction between the rap performance (given for quality rap performances) and rap/sung collaboration (awarded to rappers or singers who collaborate), the names of the categories often muddy the distinction (for example, record of the year goes to producers while song of the year goes to the writers, who are often one and the same).

Bill Werde, editorial director of music trade Billboard, observes that many of the eliminated categories were not receiving enough submissions. “The mission of the organization is not to make awards easy to win … but to award merit,” he says. “The categories that were condensed were categories that were substantially underfed by the nominations. Maybe there just isn’t enough interest to support those categories.”

One genre that was given an overhaul was jazz, having lost two categories, which might have to do with the form’s roughly 3% market share in album sales.

“Those of us working in the jazz field continue to see inequities when it comes to giving our music proper respect,” says Gordon Goodwin, leader of the Grammy-nominated jazz ensemble Big Phat Band. “The root of this, I’m afraid, lies in the weak economic position that jazz currently holds, and until we address that huge issue, this is where we are.”

Terri Lyne Carrington, nominated for jazz vocal album this year, adds: “We are under a bit of an illusion to think that business, survival and prosperity are not components in decision making of any large organization. I do not feel being more in touch with contemporary pop culture makes anything more relevant. History defines what is relevant.”

The question remains whether NARAS should have slimmed down the Grammy categories even further, and whether certain categories (think surround sound album or recording package) are relevant if most people have never heard of them.

As Werde says, “If a category isn’t driving interest, what’s the point?”

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