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

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

"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.

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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.

Given the reality that this year's crop of contenders reached the all-time high of 16,500 entries for consideration, disagreements among music lovers are unavoidable. "It would be nice to see a bit more exposure for orchestral works," says 17-year-old high school junior Nick Heitkamp, from Victorville, Calif., an oboe player who has come down for the weekend to visit the Grammy museum in downtown Los Angeles. "After all," he says gesturing to the museum walls, amply decorated with musicians of every genre, from rhythm and blues to gospel, jazz, and classical, "it is the foundation of all the rest, so it would be nice to keep the emotional beauty of it in the popular music."

In critiquing the Grammys, it's important to keep the telecast separate from the awards themselves, points out Christopher Sampson, associate dean for the Division of Popular Music and Industry Studies at USC Thornton School of Music. "If anything, the Grammy Awards serve as an annual snapshot of musical trends as seen through the eyes of the professionals in the academy," he writes in an e-mail. "If the Grammy Awards are viewed through the lens of the televised awards broadcast, it would be easy to think the awards are slanted towards popular artists."

But network television answers to its advertisers, Mr. Sampson says, and the need to attract and retain young viewers dominates the telecast decisions. "With this influence, it's understandable that the broadcast will lean heavily towards the artists that have moved millions of copies of their recordings because they will bring the largest television audience."

While this is only speculation he says, if the academy alone produced the awards show without the interests of a broadcast network in mind, it would be a very different show. This year, the awards are honoring artists in 109 categories, down one from an all-time high this past year, after the polka berth was consolidated into the folk category. Seems the favorite of the Lawrence Welk generation was no longer receiving enough nominations to remain viable. But for every passionate devotee of a particular genre, the Grammys still appeal to a broad range of fans who tune in to learn something new.

"I like the show," says caretaker Katie Mastin, from Orange County, a health- care professional who has brought a group of special needs adults to the museum to acquaint them with as many different musical influences as possible. She says the show serves somewhat the same purpose for her own musical knowledge. "I like to learn about new artists and categories I didn't know about before, and especially like the lifetime achievement award because you get a whole history," she says.

This year, for instance, Michael Jackson will receive, posthumously, one of seven such awards. That kind of experience is music to Portnow's ears.

"We spend a lot of time trying to come up with unique musical moments for our audience," he says, pointing to the pairing in a recent show of classical pianist Lang-Lang and Herbie Hancock in a performance of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." In 2003, he adds, he paired the New York Philharmonic with Coldplay.

"People loved it and saw the music in a new light," he says. As for intriguing Grammy moments in this year's broadcast, Portnow won't spoil the surprise. But he is hopeful that opera superstar Placido Domingo will agree to present an award. "Now, that's a perfect combination of star power and musical depth," he says. The kind of moment he believes the Grammys represent at their best.

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