Why The 2018 Grammy Nominations Look So Different

Photo: Michael Tran/FilmMagic.
For the first time in the Recording Academy's history, a white man isn't nominated for Album of the Year, and we very likely have Beck's surprise win over Beyoncé in 2015 to thank for that. While the changes that upset initiated didn't kick in quickly enough to stop Adele from besting Bey in the same category last year, the 2018 nominee class, especially in the Academy's four flagship categories (Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist) seem to be largely benefiting from policies and a review process instituted with an eye towards modernizing who gets nominated.
The Grammys have been dragged for years for a voting body that likes to celebrate artists late in their careers with AOTY (Album of the Year) nominations that are really career awards rather than nominations for an album that reflect where music is at currently (see: Ray Charles, Steely Dan, Herbie Hancock), for continuing to embrace rock over hip hop in their major categories (see: Ed Sheeran's utter lack of nominations in the big four categories before this year), for nominating artists and work in the hip hop and rap categories that only serve as proof of how out of touch with the genres their voting body is, for nominating at least one AOTY by a critically acclaimed artist that makes the general public go "who?" (see: Strugill Simpson, Alabama Shakes, Arcade Fire), and for generally not nominating music that represents what is actually being consumed.
The Recording Academy's offenses against hip hop, and lack of recognition for the genre of music that is the most popular and powerful in the industry today, were not going to be able to stand for much longer. In addition to the public shaming the Grammys have gotten for consistently tokenizing the genre in its big four categories, it has seen Drake and Frank Ocean, arguably among the most popular and most artistic artists working in the genre, decline to even submit their most recent albums for consideration. Kanye West slammed the nominations process in 2016, calling the Academy "completely out of touch." If the most important artists in music don't consider your award worth winning, what is your relevance? So, serious changes had to come to the voting process to regain some lost ground with respect to the integrity of this awards ceremony.
The biggest change, which helped diversify the Grammy voter pool, was that this was the first year online voting was allowed. Yes, seriously: up until now the Recording Academy sent out paper ballots in the U.S. mail. While that undoubtedly encouraged many of the Academy's younger and touring members to participate, Bill Freimuth, the Academy's SVP of Awards, told Billboard that it also helps curb ballots being filled out incorrectly and fraudulent voting. Additionally, he mentioned that it curbs "voting in 'blocs' to boost a nominee" (a.k.a. gaming the system). Another factor, offered to the Los Angeles Times by Recording Academy President Neil Portnow, were "ongoing efforts by the Academy to insure that its voting members are actively engaged in making music" (a.k.a., if you haven't released music or been involved in the industry in a number of years, your voting privileges may have been revoked, which could have a significant impact on who makes up the voting pool).
Another change in how voting works comes with the addition of nominations review committees, with one being added for the 2018 awards to the rap nominations, along with a few other, less notable categories. These committees, started in 1989 (you know, after Lionel Richie beat Bruce Springsteen's Born In the USA and Prince's Purple Rain out for AOTY and the world lost its mind over those grave injustices), were put in place as "an additional round of checks and balances to eliminate the potential for a popularity bias that puts emerging artists, independent music, and late-year releases at a disadvantage," per the Academy. But a close reading of insider commentary indicates that what they do is review the votes of the 13,000 people in the voting body and then correct it when they go astray. Anyone with creative or technical credits on at least six tracks can join the voting body (which means if you wrote the liner notes for six albums or A&R six singles, you can vote without playing a note of music), while musicians have to have released an album in the last five years to be a voter in good standing. If you've won a Grammy in the past, in any category, you are a lifetime voter.
There is a nominations review committee for the top four awards, also, that is totally unacknowledged publicly by the Academy. The decisions of that committee is probably why we see so many women and people of color in those categories this year, along with allowing an online vote which most certainly skewed the results in a certain direction. After all, more data makes it easier for the people on these nominating committees (whose identities are secret), who allegedly look at the top 20 nominees from the full voting body and then cut them down in private ballots tallied by accountants.
In short: the people at the highest levels heard your complaints and the complaints of artists, want to be an award that is prestigious, and want young people to tune in to their telecast. So, they made the necessary changes to update the Grammy nominations which, this year, meant finally embracing an emphasis on hip hop and rap.
We've seen the Grammys adjust to the changing habits of music consumers in the past years, shifting their focus from AOTY to ROTY (record of the year) as the biggest award of the night. Next up: convincing them no one cares about genres anymore.
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