It’s Time for the Grammys to Abolish the 33% Rule (Guest Column)

Grammy Award trophies

This column by songwriter-producer Ross Golan — who has worked with Ariana Grande, Maroon 5, Celine Dion, Justin Bieber and many others and is also creator and host of the “And the Writer Is” podcast — calls for the Recording Academy to change the “33% rule” it uses to determine which contributors to an album receive an award. Variety welcomes suitable and responsible guest columns, to submit please email music@variety.com.

Pardon the sports analogy, but imagine a World Series-winning baseball team not giving any of their starting pitchers championship rings because they only started 20% of the team’s games. What if the rules were that you had to be on the field for 33% of all games played to count as a member of the team?

In all major professional sports, rings are given not just to players but even to strength and conditioning coaches — not because pro teams are generous, but because the coach earned it. Do those rings dilute the accomplishments of future teams that win championships? Of course not. Do those rings dilute the accomplishments of their teammates? Of course not.

The Grammy Awards represent more to music than any other award. Every other award is a popularity contest voted on by fans. But the Grammys are built to celebrate the very best music voted by peers. That’s why they mean so much to so many.

But it’s time to do away with the Grammys’ “33% rule”: in order to win a nomination for the Album of the Year categories as an artist, producer, songwriter or engineer, you must participate in 33% or more of the album. Take Kasey Musgraves’s “Golden Hour,” which won both Country Album of the Year and the big prize, Album of the Year, back in 2019. The first two singles, “Butterflies” and “Space Cowboy,” were cowritten by the great Luke Laird — but those were his only songs in the collection, and thus, he did not qualify to stand onstage when the album won! Imagine Paul Epworth not winning for “Rolling in the Deep” or Dan Wilson not winning for “Someone Like You” or Ryan Tedder not winning for “Rumour Has It,” all from Adele’s blockbuster album “21.”

But wait, they did win. So what happened?

In 2016, I wrote “Dangerous Woman” for Ariana Grande. That was the only song I had on the album and it was the last song to be added. That’s how albums are usually made: An artist often writes the bulk of the album with their favorite collaborators and the label picks singles often sent in by outside writers. Then she changed the name of the album to “Dangerous Woman.” She named her tour, clothing line and documentary “Dangerous Woman.”

At that point, there had been 59 Grammy Awards, and no songwriter had ever participated in the show’s biggest category. My friend Evan Bogart and I pushed to add songwriters to the list of eligible winners, and we’re proud that the organization finally did. But it wasn’t easy and concessions had to be made. Thus, the 33% Rule was born.

We heard opponents of adding songwriters say some of the following, and these are verbatim quotes:

“What next, caterers?”

“What about the guy in the room who’s on his phone the whole time who gets songwriting credit?”

“What about ‘those genres’ that have 9 people on a song?”

“How can we give all of them tickets to the live show?”

Ahhhh, now we’re getting to it: These are the real concerns. The worry is that “certain genres” credit all of their participants. Holland, Dozier and Holland did not give songwriting credit to the legendary Motown house band, the Funk Brothers, because that was a different era. But Kanye does. Why not embrace that inclusivity? Why not give credit to the strength and conditioning coach?

A few years back, Beck had five mastering engineers on one album. If it takes five mastering engineers, fine. But don’t NOT give Luke Laird a Grammy for helping to define the Grammy-winning Album of the Year. If I had it my way, I’d give the A&R and the string arrangers Grammys too! Why not?

The 33% Rule quantifies an award given for quality — or “excellence,” in Recording Academy terminology. The Grammys not only should abolish the rule but should retroactively give nominations and awards to those who should have been celebrated over the past five years. 

I love The Grammys, although they haven’t always been great to songwriters. Interim president/CEO Harvey Mason, jr. has improved the organization drastically. He’s had a lot of controversy to work through and he’s done it with class. I love that he and Evan Bogart started the Songwriter and Composer Wing.

Hopefully, that will lead to a Songwriter of the Year category as well.