On Thursday, the Recording Academy announced some significant changes to the Grammy Awards. The biggest deal? Streaming-only music will be eligible for awards. Yes, it appears that the good folks at NARAS (the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) have stashed away their Caselogics and come around to the reality of the way millions of people listen to music.
The Grammys are also swapping out the “Best Rap/Sung Collaboration” for “Best Rap/Sung Performance.” That can only mean one thing. And the most confusing, potentially-cursed category — Best New Artist — is changing, too.
While everyone knows when to get angry at the Oscars and to accept that the Golden Globes are drunk, the Grammys are… confusing. There are dozens of categories and unclear distinctions among honors, veterans who somehow take home Best New Artist and promising rookies deemed ineligible for that same award for illogical, capricious reasons. ThinkProgress asked Chris Molanphy, pop chart analyst who writes for Slate, Pitchfork, and NPR, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, senior editor of pop music at Rovi and NARAS member, to break down the three biggest changes to the Grammy rules.
Change, by the way, isn’t so surprising from the Grammys. (Contrast that with the pearl-clutching, how-dare-you-upend-tradition response from more conservative corners of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when backlash to two years of too-white Oscars sparked changes in membership and voting policies.) Edits to the rules aren’t super uncommon, Erlewine said. “It actually happens more often than you’d think. I know they’ve been pretty receptive to the changes that are happening within the industry, because any casual observer can tell that there’s a lot in flux right now. They work on making the categories tighter and more defined.”
Coloring Book Is Only Available To Stream? Grammys Say: No Problem.
In 2014, for the first time in music industry history, streaming services earned more money than CD sales. In the two years that followed, streaming has only ascended and asserted its dominance, as even initially wary artists like Taylor Swift ink exclusive arrangements with the likes of Apple Music and savvy, independent-minded rookies like Chance the Rapper forgo physical sales altogether. It’s likely a desire to keep Chance, whose Coloring Book is a critically-adored masterpiece, in the running for Grammys this year that gave NARAS the final push it needed to join the rest of us in the future and accept streaming-only music in its ranks.
There are some catches, of course: The obviously anti-piracy-minded people at NARAS are only interested in “paid subscription, full catalogue, on-demand streaming/limited download platforms that have existed as such within the United States for at least one full year as of the submission deadline.” No free music allowed.
It may seem like the Grammys are a little late to the party. But Molanphy thinks they’re not too far behind the industry, even if they’re trailing a bit behind public listening habits. He breaks the industry down into three major bodies: Billboard, the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), and NARAS, which is to say, “the people who chart things, the people who certify things, and the people who award things.” Out of those three, “NARAS is last” to embrace streaming — but not by much.
“Billboard only converted its album chart to allow streaming to count for that album chart in December 2014,” Molanphy said. That’s how you get an album like Drake’s Views holding onto the top spot on the charts for a month despite not being the top-selling album for any of those four weeks. “They are forcing us to reevaluate what it means to have a number one album.” Back in 2012, Billboard started factoring Spotify streams into its singles chart, but that’s an easier metric to calculate. Now 1,500 streams of a song equals one album sale, even if all you do is listen to “One Dance” 1,500 times and never touch the rest of the album.
Less than a year later, the RIAA started to allow streaming to count toward certifications using that same 1,500-to-one metric. And now NARAS is on board. “Chance the Rapper’s album may never be released in a physical form as a downloadable album in any form,” Molanphy said. “And you don’t want to leave that out of the conversation. NARAS is making the right call here. If anything, they should have made this a year ago.”
“That’s pretty indicative of how the Grammys do want to actually engage with how people consume music now,” Erlewine said. “The industry is keenly aware that there’s considerable growth within streaming. But it shows that they’re trying to set it up so that they’re still going to be relevant and talking about how people listen to music now instead of waiting a long time.”
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Announcing this now also “opens the doors for the next few months, because the nominations period ends in October,” Erlewine said.
Molanphy anticipated some labels might use the rule changes to more savvily structure release dates for their artists. “Labels are notorious for dropping a priority album toward the end of September to put it fresh in Grammy voters’ minds,” not unlike studios that premiere their Best Picture hopefuls right around Christmas. So “I would not be surprised if some smart label starts platforming a release where, maybe they’re not ready to press a bunch of CDs and vinyl yet, but if they can drop an album on streaming, not something on the caliber of Adele, but something a tier below that, something that is Grammy-worthy,” they can still snag Grammy eligibility for that artist, even if the physical album isn’t available for months.
“It’s a little bit like the movie studio that puts an Oscar-bait movie into one theater in L.A. and one theater in New York the last week in December and don’t go wide until January,” he said, although at least the model of streaming-first, hard-copy-later is a more populist one. “I would not be surprised to see a label drop a streaming album the last week in September and then waiting until Thanksgiving and Christmas, when people buy music, to sell the physical albums and vinyl.”
By making this the year, Molanphy said, NARAS is right on the zeitgeist. “2016 is going to be remembered as the year when streaming took over the music business.” Spotify has been available in the U.S. since 2011, but this cultural moment is like “when the cassette overtook the LP in the early ’80s, or the CD overtook the cassette tape in the early ‘90s… This is the year that streaming went fully overboard. It’s overtaking everything.”
‘The Drake Change’
The “Best Rap/Sung Collaboration” category started out as a way to honor the collaborations that served as the soundtrack to the best seventh-grade dances (e.g. Jennifer Lopez and Ja Rule, Ashanti and Ja Rule, pretty much everyone and Ja Rule). But then Drake, who might be more meme than man at this point, started singing his own hooks. In addition to putting the Ashantis of the world out of a steady job, he created a complication for NARAS, who responded by altering the rules so artists who sing and rap on their own songs can win. Drake: Changing the game, literally.
“Drake is pretty much the biggest star in hip hop,” said Molanphy. “It’s not surprising they’ll say, ‘You can sing and rap in the same song.’” Pressed to think of anyone else in music to whom this rule could possibly apply, both Molanphy and Erlewine came up empty.
It’s worth noting that, until 1996, the Grammys did not even acknowledge rap as a genre of music, and now the awards body is game to alter its infrastructure essentially to make sure two rappers — Drake, Chance — are eligible for awards.
Best New Artist Will Make Marginally More Sense
Ah, Best New Artist, an award so weird and bad at doing whatever it is that this award is supposed to do — honor precocity? Make everyone question what it means to be “new”? — that winning it is, in some corners, considered to be about as lousy as losing it.
“It has been plagued by misunderstandings and arcane rules,” said Molanphy. “What’s so bizarre about Best New Artist over the decades is how people are alternately ruled ineligible for pointless reasons or eligible for arbitrary reasons.”
Whitney Houston, for instance, was deemed ineligible because she’d done one duet with Teddy Pendergrass; in 1985, NARAS decided that this recording meant she was no longer a “new” artist and couldn’t take home the trophy. Fast-forward to 2001: That year’s winner, Shelby Lynn, had recorded a bunch of country albums “and had been knocking around for half a decade,” Molanphy said, but because “she crossed over into soul-pop, NARAS caught on to her and called her a Best New Artist.”
So while the changes here might kind of, sort of make things a bit clearer, Molanphy said, “they have not gotten the rules right for that, I believe, ever.” And these rules still invoke the “slippery” phrasing that states the artist “must have achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness and impacted the musical landscape during the eligibility period.
What sparked this change? Molanphy’s hunch is that the omission of Lady Gaga seven years ago got this issue on people’s minds again. Meghan Trainor took home Best New Artist at this year’s ceremony; at the previous year’s Grammys, though, she was nominated twice for “All About That Bass.” How can you be a new artist a full year after you’re nominated for two Grammys? No one knows!
“Right up to the present day, these rules have never made sense,” said Molanphy. “And Best New Artist is a very unusual award. It’s basically the only award where they’re giving out a prize for an artist just being themselves. It’s not for any specific work; it’s not for an album or a song. Every other award is tied, in some fashion, to a specific release. And Best New Artist is just like, ‘Here you go, we think you’re awesome!’ Which I think is why the rules for this award have been so strange over the decades.”
Reflecting a shift in how artists release music — and providing more fodder for the case that the album, as an art form, is a thing of the past (counterpoint: Lemonade) — Best New Artist hopefuls can be eligible without ever releasing a formal album but instead dropping at least five singles (but no more than 30).
“There’s been a huge shift in introducing new artists, particularly from major labels through EPs and singles,” said Erlewine. Trainor is a great example: She released Title as an EP in September 2014, only to replace it with her major label debut of the same name in January the next year. “A lot of times, the new album will be premiered as a four track EP, and that becomes the core that the debut album is built off of. Or there might be a series of two or three EPs, and they test material out before they get to the full thing,” Erlewine said. The new rule “is a reaction to how music is actually being released and consumed” and “is closer to reflecting how labels are already investing their time and money trying to break new artists.”