Why some musicians are protesting this year’s Grammy Awards show

The Recording Academy has eliminated 31 categories of Grammy Awards, many of which are often won by minorities. A protest rally and alternative concert will be held on Sunday.

When they filter into Staples Center on Sunday night for the recording industry’s biggest night, many of music’s best-known names will be walking right by some of music’s other luminaries. Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney, and Taylor SwiftGrammy winners all – will squeeze through the doors, while two-time Grammy winner Oscar Hernandez and multiple nominees Bobby Sanabria and John Santos will remain outside in protest.

The reason: Thirty-one categories of awards have been eliminated this year by the Recording Academy (also referred to as NARAS). Eliminated categories, which the academy announced last April, include Latin jazz, contemporary jazz, native American, zydeco, Cajun, classical, Hawaiian, polka, regional Mexican, and world music.

In Los Angeles Thursday, a group of 12 Latin jazz musicians delivered 23,000 signatures in support of the reinstatement of the categories. Via the Internet, other organizations have organized write-in campaigns against the academy and CBS, which is airing the show. Activists are organizing a protest rally outside Staples from 3:30 to 5 p.m. on Sunday and will then hold a concert (“The Not Those Awards All-Star Latin Jazz Jam”) across town during the show.

“Without notifying any of the membership, NARAS set up a secret committee to cut back these categories,” says Robert Sax, a spokesman for Grammy Watch, a coalition of musicians that is fighting to reinstate the categories. At least 15 of the categories, he says, are usually won by people of color and by those with independent labels.

“At a time when the US is becoming more and more diverse musically, the Grammys should reflect that, but when you cut off the roots of ethnic categories, you are doing just the opposite of that,” he says.

The removal of such categories takes away one of the great tools for lesser-known musicians and labels, say Mr. Sax and others.

“Grammy Awards are incredibly useful in helping an artist build a career,” Sax says. “Sales go up, bookings go up, and careers lift off with the aid of a Grammy recognition.”

In August of last year, four Latin jazz artists filed a lawsuit with the New York Supreme Court, claiming that the dropping of such categories had adversely affected their careers and that the academy was violating its “contractual obligations” to its 21,000 members, who are musicians, producers, recording engineers, and other recording professionals. A jurisdictional issue has tied up the lawsuit for now.

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Academy president Neil Portnow has not responded to most press inquiries, but is quoted in Billboard Magazine as saying, “For those who take a hard line with lawsuits and protests, that’s their choice. It wouldn’t be my preference as a way to work together.”

The academy, say industry observers and academics, is trying to tread a fine line between being a cheerleader to the industry and holding onto decent ratings for its annual show. To include too many categories can drag down the pace of the show.

“NARAS has likely made a decision that at this point in time, it cannot be, at least in terms of its highly watched television program, ‘all things to all people,’ ” says La Salle University communications professor Richard Goedkoop, in an e-mail.

“The proliferation of formats also gave rise concurrently to opportunities for newer artists, many of whom came out of a variety of ethnic communities, many of whom have enriched our culture substantially,” Professor Goedkoop adds. “But, it is also true that some of those artists and newer musical categories are not fully accepted and bought by the majority of listeners ... or viewers of the Grammy Awards television program.”

Others are more candid.

“These awards are a money machine for television and the music industry,” says Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory in the sociology department at the University of Texas at Arlington, in an e-mail. “The Grammy decision to reduce the categories of music is a McDonaldization of music, and cultural banality will be the result."

Still others talk about the possibility of an obvious compromise.

“I understand the producer’s dilemma of figuring out how to keep the energy of the show moving with performances, without just announcing a bunch of names, which drags things right to a halt,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “It seems like the obvious answer is to tell people to visit [the academy’s] website, where they can see the winners’ names and sample their music.”

Mr. Thompson also suggests the alternative of having a “crawl” line during the show or ending credits.

Some involved in the dispute are open to the idea. “Having the awards in these other categories off camera is not a problem to us,” says Sax.

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