Monday, February 1, 2010

Casual Musings on the 52nd Grammy Awards

Whenever I watch the Grammys, I like to keep an open mind and do my best not to fret over envisioning what an award ceremony to honor the best in music should really look like, as I see fit. Success in life has a lot to do with the connections you make – why should the music industry and, subsequently, the Grammys be any different? Every once in a while the underdog scores one against the big guys, sure, but for the most part the nominations (and the results) meet a mainstream-specific standard, rarely breaking the mold. It’s easy and almost clichéd to bash the industry for its corporate nature, but I feel like I must nonetheless because year in and year out, as I watch each and every Grammy Award ceremony, unexplainable oddities of the music biz rear their head and make me scratch my own.

Defining the Term “New Artist”

According to the official guidelines, the Grammy Award for Best New Artist is as follows: “For a new artist who releases, during the Eligibility Year, the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist.” So essentially an artist who remains in the underground scene for years – or even decades(!) – can still make a push for the award as soon as they seek a “public identity.” Right? What is a “public identity” anyways? Let’s take a quick look at the artists who received nominations in the category for this year’s Best New Artist Award:

Let’s begin with Keri Hilson. Keri Hilson’s “identity” became “public” to me in 2004 when she was featured on the first single off of Weapons of Mass Destruction by Xzibit – one of my favorite rappers at the time. In 2006, she was featured on the third single off of Rotten Apple by Lloyd Banks. Okay, I’ll give you that one – nobody listened to Rotten Apple. In 2007, she was featured on Timbaland’s worldwide smash single “The Way I Are” off his album Shock Therapy which went platinum. Overall, from 2004 to 2008, Keri Hilson was featured on officially released singles by Xzibit, Lloyd Banks, Timbaland, Rich Boy, Nas, Chris Brown and Kardinal Offishall. All of these singles were from albums which were released on major labels. And this doesn’t include feature tracks that didn’t go on to become singles. My point is that her “identity” was fairly “public” prior to the release of her debut album in 2009. So in my book, I wouldn’t call her a new artist at all! (And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that she’s been a songwriter since 2001; but apparently the industry doesn't view “songwriting” isn’t “art”?)

Assuming you’re thinking to yourself “eh, whatever, I understand that nomination since it was her first album”, how about we look at another nominee: MGMT. The Brooklyn-based musical duo of Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, otherwise known as MGMT, became “public” to me in 2007 when they dropped their album Oracular Spectacular, released through Columbia Records. Their hit song, “Time to Pretend”, had originally been featured on their aptly titled Time to Pretend EP which was eleased in 2005. MGMT won the NME Award for “Best New Band” in 2008. Well that’s odd, isn’t it? That’s not 2010, is it? How can an American band be a “Best New Band” in 2008 (in the U.K.) and be up for the “Best New Artist Award” in 2010 (in their respective country)? Does the UK have a better ear for music from the U.S.A. than… the U.S.A.? I digress.

The Tings Tings are another group with a similar story. This U.K. duo’s “identity” became “public” to me, and anyone who wasn’t living under a rock, with their annoyingly-popular single “That’s Not My Name” in 2008 via Columbia Records (they strike again!). The song had originally been released by indie label Switchflicker Records in 2007. To be fair though, the song had only been released in 2009 to the U.S. audience. I’ll give ‘em that. But The Tings Tings also released the single “Shut Up and Let Me Go” in 2008 – worldwide. Both of these songs have been certified gold by the RIAA. In 2008, The Tings Tings were nominated for the following awards: the Vodafone Live Music Awards’ XFM Live Breakthrough Act Award, BT Digital’s Best Pop Artist Award, the Q Awards’ Best New Act Award, MTV Europe’s Best UK Act Award, mtvU Woodie’s Best Performing Award and more (I’m getting a bit tired of typing this…). They were also nominated for three awards at the 2008 UK Festival Awards: Festival Pop Act, Anthe of the Summer and, most relevant to this discussion, Best Newcomer Award. They won all three of them! I’m not even gonna bother with the awards they were nominated for and won in 2009. The bottom line is that The Tings Tings were new 2 years ago.

The Silversun Pickups are an alt.-rock group from Los Angeles. I’ve known about these guys since 2006 when they dropped their first album. If I had lived anywhere else, though, they’d probably still be new to me so I suppose I can accept judgment on this nomination. For what it’s worth though, Silversun Pickups made a name for themselves back in 2007 when they hit the top of Billboard’s Top Heatseekers chart. This chart is aimed to recognize the achievements of new artists. Let me say that again: “new artists.” In 2007! They were #1 on this chart! It’s like I’m beating on a dead horse here…

Finally we’ve got the Zac Brown Band – the winners of the Best New Artist Award. I’ve never heard of these guys ‘til today, so yeah, to me they’re “new” artists. But according to Wikipedia, the most reliable source available (ahem), they’ve been active since the year 2000 (cue LaBamba). They released two self-released albums in 2004 and 2005. It was only until 2008 when they hit it big, so to speak, with the release of The Foundation, backed by major label Atlantic Records. And therein lies the problem with this whole scenario: it’s not about the artist, it’s about the record label!

The Bottom Line (Yep, That's a Double Entendre)

As the industry sees it, an artist is only deemed “new” once he/she/they blow up on a major label. I’d argue that this is why Drizzy Drake wasn’t nominated for the category – a category which would be fully appropriate for him to win with flying colors if you ask me. The only problem with Mr. Aubrey Drake Graham, as the music biz sees it, is that Drake’s musical career thus far has been elevated by the crux of their own worst fears: freely distributed music. And I predicted that he wouldn’t win either of the two Grammy nominations he’d earned for “Best I Ever Had” for this very reason! Will Drake get nominated next year? Who knows?! It wouldn’t make much sense if he did though, now would it?

You shouldn’t be surprised that I’m going on yet another RIAA rant, but I’m putting it out there on Main Street once again. The Recording Industry Association of America must begin to treat music less as a commodity and more as the art form it deserves to be. No one’s saying that musicians shouldn’t get paid, but a bit more emphasis on artistic integrity (and quality) can go a long way. Somewhere in the middle of the second half of the show, the audience was treated to yet another lecture by an RIAA representative discussing the crippling effects that file sharing has on the music industry. When the RIAA points the finger at people like me, my reaction is to point it back at them.

It seems like artists have to ask a whole lot from their record labels these days, doesn’t it? You can ask Wale all about that; I wonder what he’d say… (I’m referring to the fact that Attention Deficit bricked, mainly because the decision-making process behind the album seemed to be carried by Interscope Records more so than Wale himself.) Record labels even have the authority, as I’ve pointed out above, to green light the decision as to whether or not, when and when not, and artist can be validated as “new.” What a farce! Over the years, many have opined that the music industry is like a slave trade. Maybe that’s too harsh. During his lawsuit with Warnes Bros. Records, though, (the artist formerly known as) Prince walked around with the word “slave” written on his face. Maybe there’s some truth to this perception after all…

The most telling moment of the night, in my eyes, was Taylor Swift’s first acceptance speech, when she won the Award for Best Country Album. Here’s what she said: “I want to thank my record label for letting me write every song on my album.” Let those words sink in for a minute… I’d like to offer an alternative to the RIAA’s viewpoint. I’d make the argument that artists having to seek permission from their record label to make the music they want to make has a far worse effect on the industry than anything else. Let’s hear it once again for Taylor Swift: “I want to thank my record label for letting me write every song on my album.” These words allude to the true culprit which poses a far greater threat to music than file sharing or bootlegging could ever imagine.