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If ‘Old Town Road’ Wins a Grammy, Will Nine Inch Nails Share the Award?

Nine Inch Nails, a banjo and Lil Nas X made unlikely bed partners in the genre-bending mega-smash “Old Town Road,” which included a track from NIN’s largely instrumental 2008 album “Ghosts I–IV.” But while Trent Reznor and frequent collaborator Atticus Ross receive co-producer/co-writer credits for having created the hit’s hook, don’t expect their names to be called if “Old Town Road” should win record of the year. 

Although ordinarily awarded to the artist along with the producer, recording and mastering engineers and/or mixers, according to the Recording Academy, “Writers-producers of sampled material are not eligible to be considered nominees nor Grammy winners, but if the record wins, their contributions would be acknowledged with certificates.”

In other words, Reznor and Ross will have to be content with their share of the song’s massive streams and royalties — at year’s end, it was the most consumed track of 2019, moving 7.8 million song project units, according to BuzzAngle Music.

From 2005 until 2013, in fact, the Grammys wouldn’t even recognize a song that contained samples or interpolations of previously written songs in any songwriting categories, a rule the Academy changed for the 2014 awards ceremony, when sampled songs became eligible for song of the year and all tune categories.

The same reasoning doesn’t apply for Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings,” with its nod to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.” The song’s record of the year nomination doesn’t include the legendary Broadway composers because writers aren’t honored in this category. Also shutting out R&H, the Academy’s song of the year category recognizes writers, but does not include the original sample’s creators.

Damon Booth, VP of A&R and client services for Big Deal Music Group, argues that since the new work is created from sampling a previous song, both “new” and original writers become co-owners of the finished piece, sharing in royalties, chart positions, many of the rights and credits.

“It’s absurd for them not to all share in the accolades equally,” he says. “Once all parties agree to the splits, it’s a marriage and you can’t give special treatment to one set of writers over the other. The work exists as a collective or it wouldn’t exist at all. That feels broken. It’s an insult to those who paved the way.”

Booth also recognizes the counter-argument, though. “Maybe they don’t want to open a can of worms to include the original producers and engineers of the sample recordings as well.”

Richard Stumpf, CEO of Atlas Music Publishing, who is just finishing out a four-year term as a trustee for the Recording Academy, is confident this is an issue the “more nimble” organization — under new president Deborah Dugan and chairman Harvey Mason — will eventually address.

“As a publisher, I don’t necessarily agree with their position,” he says. “But the Academy is always evolving, and I’ve seen a lot of changes in my time as a trustee. I know this topic has been widely discussed. … Of course, I’d like to see the writers of the sampled works receive Grammys because their contributions are critical in many of these cases. It just makes a lot of sense.”

Stumpf agrees that sample writers are not technically “in the room” when creating songs, which is one of the arguments the Academy has used in determining their eligibility for certificates, rather than a Grammy trophy. Still, he adds, “In some cases, the sampled work makes up 75% of the song.”

Veteran publishing executive Jason Bernard, whose Born and Raised Entertainment represents writers, producers and mixers, says: “Anyone properly involved, who helps define the song, should be recognized for their work. It may be a Pandora’s box, but it would make sense for all contributors to be acknowledged. How do you justify crediting some and not all?” 

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