The Grammy nominations are out. You're welcome to see the list, but we don't recommend reading much into it. The major awards are all more or less their respective industries sitting in a circle for a giant back-rub chain, but none is less indicative of what is actually happening than the Grammys.
This makes sense: By orders of magnitude, there's more music made each year than there are movies or plays or TV shows, and the industry is even less adept at identifying quality now than it used to be. The Grammys are where it ostensibly tries, but what does that mean? How, exactly, does someone get nominated for a Grammy?
The very short answer is that if you suspected a Grammy could be bought, you were right. In order to understand how, you've got to look at the process. There are four steps involved:
Step 1. Submit a nomination. Nominations can be submitted to the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences by registered record labels or NARAS members. We'll get to the membership thing in a second, but we're not sure why every label wouldn't just submit everything they've had any involvement with. So this first step only eliminates self-released music (and even that could make its way to this point) and anyone who actively doesn't want to win a Grammy.
Grammy nominee Arcade Fire, white suburban youth.
Step 2. "Expert" review There's a panel of 150 music experts who go through the nominations -- not to make any value judgements, but just to make sure the nominations are categorized correctly and were released in the eligible window of time (for this year's award, September 1, 2009, to September 30, 2010). So this is completely a custodial step.
Step 3. Members vote The list of nominations (which is enormous at this point) is sent to all NARAS members. In order to become a voting NARAS member, you must have $100. There's a song and dance on the application about proving that you're somehow involved in music, but it's a sieve. You need six song credits on allmusic.com, or twelve songs elsewhere plus some kind of documentation that you're working toward a career in music, or the endorsement of two other NARAS members. If you have $100 and are in a band or $300 and have two friends in bands, you can pretty easily become a voting member.
Or, more significant, if you are a giant record label bent on pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into getting some Grammys on your office shelves, you just need to gather up everyone around you and make them all voting members on your behalf. To be clear: This is just the obvious, semi-legitimate way of buying yourself a Grammy. We're sure it's not the only way.
Grammy nominee Lady Antebellum in a forest.
Step 4. Rinse, repeat At this point, we're up to the present. The top five vote-getters in every category get put back on a ballot and sent out to the members again. That list comprises the nominations you can see right now on the Grammy website. The members vote on the short list, and the winners get announced at the dog-and-pony show in February.
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Incidentally, if you have recorded an album in a highly niche genre, you can gather up your friends and buy yourself a Grammy without too much trouble. For example, there will be no Mexican Regional Music Grammy awarded this year because the initial ballot did not include the required ten total nominations. A couple more nominations thrown in to get the award on the final ballot and you'd need maybe fifteen votes to win your Grammy. And remember, everyone gets the same statue. You can still slap "Grammy award-winning" in front of every reference to your album.
As far as this year's nominations: Lots of Lady Antebellum and Eminem. Katy Perry in all the wrong places. The usual hip-hop tone-deafness. A fair amount of The Smeezingtons, which we would be excited about if it weren't hypocritical to get excited about any of this. And you will not have the pleasure of watching Taylor Swift acting shocked this year because she did not release any music in the window of eligibility. Don't worry -- she'll be back next year to collect hardware on an album that will be almost a year and a half old. Kanye West, meanwhile, got the "Power" single out just before the deadline and has one nomination for it. The rest of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy will have to wait. And we wouldn't bet on it winning anything.
If you're interest is in who is likely to get the biggest sales bump out of all this, wait until the performers are announced. No one gives a shit who wins, but lots of people still watch anyway. The performances, replete with infinite production value and ill-advised conception, wind up being the thing everyone's talking about the next day. So, labels: If you want a far better return on your investment, forget the awards and buy your artists some playing time instead.