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Merit or mega-hits?

Have the most coveted music awards gone commercial? Domination by top 40 stars makes it look that way.

By / staff writer / January 25, 2010

The Black Eyed Peas from left, will. i. am,, Fergie, and Taboo are seen backstage at the Grammy Nominations Concert on Dec. 2, 2009, in Los Angeles.

Matt Sayles/AP/File


Los Angeles

The 52nd Annual Grammy Awards are a week early this year (a move to avoid competing with NBC Olympics coverage), but that is not the only change getting attention this awards season.

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"This year's [list of] nominees for Album of the Year – Beyoncé, Black-Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Dave Matthews – reads like a year-end Billboard Chart summary," writes former industry professional Robin Zaremski in an e-mail. She now teaches music business at Albright College in Reading, Pa.

The domination by Top 40 artists has led to grumbling among fans and critics alike that the Grammys have gone commercial, favoring artists who will draw ratings for the telecast and give a boost to record sales.

Alone among the televised music-awards ceremonies, the Grammys are peer-selected – by the 12,000 or so voting members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), which sponsors the awards and telecast. The goal and official position of the academy is that the nominees and winners are snapshots of the best in recorded music released during the previous qualification window, which this year ran from Oct. 1, 2008, to Aug. 31, 2009.

NARAS president, Neil Portnow, says the selection process is not influenced by money issues, rather it reflects the true judgment of music professionals. For the past 16 years, the academy has also released a compilation CD of the nominees.

"If, as happens every year," says Ms. Zaremski, "all of the nominees for Album, Record, and Song of the Year perform on the show and are included on the Grammy album, it will make for an economically successful year for NARAS."

Industry analyst, Bob Grossweiner, goes so far as to call elements of the process a "sham," to which Zaremski adds, "Once the question is asked: Can these really be the best albums, songs, or records produced this year or simply the popular choice, the Grammys have lost the objectivity and respect where it matters most – with true musicians – and have devalued the honor of receiving a Grammy."

But Mr. Portnow says irregularities in the voting process that in the past may have led to undue influence from record labels have been cleaned up. The reasons, he adds, that this year's nominations are more mainstream – not as edgy as the 2008 top album win by Herbie Hancock for "River: The Joni Letters," or last year's "Raising Sand," from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – are simple. "There just may not be the same sort of albums in those less mainstream corners of the music industry" this year.