The scene is the same across awards season. A presenter opens up an envelope. Reads the words, looks up, and enjoys the brief sensation of knowing something we don't. She reads the name, and spectacle ensues.
It's easy to get swept up in the speeches and GIF-worthy reactions and overlook all the machinations leading up to that moment. The granular and opaque nomination process. The complicated rules of voting — who votes, and how.
Typically, we accept the winner and move on. But it's worth considering how those winners are chosen. The 2019 Grammys air on Sunday, February 10. In the past, the Grammys have been criticized for shutting out women and people of color, and for favoring popular and legacy artists. Generally, the awards show has a reputation of being out of touch. Last year, while Hollywood processed #MeToo in fired-up acceptance and speeches and celebrating women-dominated movies, the Grammys gave only one major award to a woman. Will the 2019 Grammys be any different than the past? It has everything to do with the voting process.
Meet the Voting Members of the Recording Academy
The Oscars has the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; the Grammys has the Recording Academy. Whereas all the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can vote on the Oscars, only a certain type of Recording Academy members can participate in Grammy voting. These are called "voting members." According to Billboard, 12,000 of the Academy's 21,000 members vote in the Grammys.
In order to become a voting member, a creator in the recording industry (which includes songwriters, performers, engineers, musicians) has to check quite a few boxes. There are three "avenues" of qualification. The first: You were nominated for a Grammy within the past five years. The second: You have six tracks available for physical purchase in stores, one of which has been released in the last five years. The third: You have 12 tracks available for purchase online, one released in the past five years yet again.
Afterwards, an application is reviewed along with the creators' sales, press interviews, critical reviews, and two recommendations forms from music industry peers. After paying a $100 fee, a person is in.
Last year, in an effort to diversify the voting body, the Recording Academy Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion invited 900 new voting members. All were either women, people of color, or under the age of 29. According to The New York Times, 22% (less than 200) of those 900 members were be admitted in time to vote this year.
How does the nomination process work?
First come the flood of submissions. In order for an artist to win a Grammy, the work must have come out within the eligibility period (for the 61st Grammys, that's October 1, 2017 through September 30, 2018). These submissions are reviewed by various committees of experts that make sure each submission is placed in the correct genre category.
So begins the first round of voting. Voting members use an online portal to vote in areas of expertise — they can vote in up to 15 of the 84 categories plus the general categories of Record Of The Year, Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Best New Artist. Results are tabulated by Deloitte. This year, the Academy will accept eight nominations in those general categories, as opposed to five.
The top nominees move onto the "nominations review committee."
Here's where things get controversial. After the top picks are tabulated by Deloitte, hand-picked group of voting members, whose identities remain private, are instrumental in whittling down the actual ballot used during the second round of voting. In 1999, one of the members spoke to the L.A. Times. Apparently, the nominations review committee receives the top 20 choices in each category, then chooses the five (or in the general award categories' case, eight) final nominations.
"The goal in each category is to take the 20 nominations that the members send forth and get the list down to a consensus of the seven or eight that we feel are the [best]. When we get that consensus, we stop. Each member of the committee then fills out a ballot, which isn't tabulated that day. So when we leave the room, no one knows the results. The only ones who know are the accountants when they tabulate it later," he explained to the L.A. Times.
After that, the final round of voting commences.
Once again, eligible members can vote in 15 categories, plus the four general categories. Results are read at the Grammys.