No matter who wins or is nominated for 2022, the Grammy Awards arguably have undergone more major changes in the past year than they have at any time in their history.
Acting on a mandate for change that ostensibly began years ago but only began to take convincing form in 2019, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. has addressed the multiple criticisms against the organization head-on, speaking diplomatically and working in consensus with its ruling board of directors, but letting action do the talking. He, the board and the management team have revamped the staff, enacted multiple initiatives to increase diversity and currency in the Academy membership, increased get-out-the-vote efforts, and, not least, distributed more than $25 million in Covid-19 relief to music people via the Academy’s charitable wing, MusiCares — and then there are the changes in the Grammys themselves.
Amid many updates coming into the 2022 nominations — including the just-announced expansion of the four main categories from eight to ten nominees — the most far-reaching may be the nearly complete elimination of the “secret” nomination-review committees that in recent decades had curated the final lists of nominees in most categories, a process that many, including Mason’s ousted predecessor Deborah Dugan, alleged had become rife with self-interest on the part of some committee members. When the process’ excesses were thrown into dramatic relief last year after the Weeknd received zero nominations despite releasing one of the most critically and commercially successful albums and singles of the year, Mason defended the Academy — and then presumably played no small role in changing it. The nomination-review committees remain only for a handful of specialized categories. “This is a new time, and a new Academy,” Mason stressed in the nominations livestream on Tuesday, and while many of the nominees were expected, several, especially Jon Batiste’s leading 11 nods, were not.
These are all positive moves, but their true impact remains to be seen, and there’s a long way to go. Variety continued its long, ongoing dialogue with Mason about the Grammys and Academy in a conversation that took place late Monday afternoon, which follows below.
First up — it’s now ten nominees instead of eight in the “big four” categories. Usually those changes are made around the annual board meetings in May. Why now?
It’s something that we’ve talked about for quite some time, but it ended up happening fairly recently because we looked at the voting and the amount of submissions [for the 2022 Grammys] — they were a crazy high number, almost 22,000 submissions, voting participation is up 17%, membership acceptance is up I think almost to 85%. So the activity, the voting, the submissions, and the amount of content all made us look at this and say, This is an incredible opportunity for us to honor more artists and shine a light on more great music, and potentially offer a greater opportunity for more genres of music to be honored.
Somebody asked, “Why did you do this so quickly, why not do it next year?” And my response is, traditionally the Academy might have studied this for a few years and thought about it and maybe done a committee, but I think the way music is moving and the industry is evolving, I’m proud to say I believe the Academy is able to move quickly. If something is right, the time to do it is now, and we’re starting to react with a bias for action.
Can you put any actual numbers yet on how many of the 12,000-odd voting members and new members actually voted?
I don’t have those numbers from Deloitte yet but at some point, I will. Right now, we just know voting is up 17%.
Speaking generally, what kind of impact do you think the elimination of most nominating committees has had?
It’s really hard to predict. I’m not sure what the committees would have put forth this year, but I think we’re seeing some really amazing diversity of genres across a lot of different categories. I think Jon Batiste is a really unique example, someone who’s nominated in four different genres over seven categories — that’s incredible. I think it’s been a great year for women and people of color and minorities, so it’s hard to compare what would have been, but I think we’re seeing excellence in a lot of categories from a lot of different types of people.
I’d have to say Batiste’s 11 nominations are the biggest surprise this year. He had three previous nominations but this album did not have a blockbuster-Grammy-nominee profile — why do you think it’s getting such a big look?
One simple answer: the voters loved him. They love his music, they appreciate the emotion behind it, the talent behind it. I can’t predict what the 12,000 voters thought, but I can tell you there’s no nomination-review committees picking the [nominees], there’s only voters. And when you see 11 nominations, the only answer is, wow, the voters really respected and loved that project
Were members you spoke with buzzing about the album?
It was playing in my car a lot! I’m not as in-tune to the voters’ … I would say it’s hard to predict where the buzz is coming from, but it’s easy to see why a record that like that would have 11 nominations, because it’s just such high quality. There’s a lot of different genres on one project, which is not something you see all the time. I think it attracts a lot of different audiences.
Maybe it’s an older group of voters that weren’t being heard before?
I don’t necessarily think so. A lot of people have said [the album] seems like something the nominations-review committee might have really fallen in love with — a record that really wasn’t as popular with the streaming population or [commercially].
I think we’re seeing the voters actually doing the work — listening to the music and basing their votes on the quality of it. They’re not getting caught up in the spin or the outside noise or even past work: They’re really listening, and that was really our goal with [narrowing voting eligibility], and the work the membership department did in renewing the membership, making sure it was relevant and making sure [voting members are] people who are actually going to listen to the music and vote with their ears.
What further changes do you think are still necessary?
I’m always seeing things I think we can do better. We did a lot of listening in the last few months, a lot of sitting with experts and influential people in genres; we changed the way we invite members into the Academy rather than waiting for them to ask us to join. I think if we’re looking at areas… I see the Rock nominations — our voters have nominated some incredible artists, but it tends to skew a little toward [heritage] ones, so we’re going to spend some time in that community listening and learning and making sure we get that right as well. We’ve got amazing ones but I’d also love to see some more younger and newer acts coming up through there.
Tricky question here: Morgan Wallen, who made a widely publicized racist comment, has no nominations. But Kanye West, who’s made some very controversial statements of his own, and even comedian Louis C.K., who’s admitted to sexual misconduct, do. Any thoughts on what’s going on there?
I go back to the voters. I have one vote, and the rest of the voting membership listens and evaluates based on their taste and experience and what they’re hearing. One thing I will say, I’m a music person and I’ve been through this process and been nominated and lost when I thought I should have won, and been snubbed when I thought I should have gotten nominated. But I think you have to acknowledge that there’s so much good music, and that is the one thing that does keep me up at night — who did we miss? There’s so many and the names are spinning in my head and we only have ten slots, so I’m thankful the voters did the great work they did, I’m thankful we have such a wide variety of people in our general field, and I’m really proud of our voters this year.
On that note, do you think Harvey Mason jr. should have been nominated this year?
(Laughing) That’s not a fair question!