A Response to Steve Stoute's Letter
Earlier this week I read "An Open Letter to Neil Portnow, NARAS and the Grammy Awards" by Steve Stoute. Mr. Stoute is a marketer, entrepreneur, and music executive, mostly working with hip-hop artists. He originally took out a full page ad in the Sunday edition of the New York Times to print his letter, and also posted it online at The Huffington Post. To summarize his letter (though feel free to read it yourself), Stoute believes that the Grammy's have "lost touch with contemporary popular culture" and cites examples of million-selling albums losing the Album of the Year category to artists that sold far less.
- In 2001, Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP lost to Steely Dan's Two Against Nature.
- In 2008, Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters beat out Kanye West's Graduation.
- This year, Justin Bieber lost the Best New Artist award to Esperanza Spalding, who is (gasp!) an upright bass player!
He also accuses the Grammy's of inviting these popular artists to perform in an attempt to increase ratings, but then, with dramatic close-up camera work, hand the award to somebody else. A valid point, although these artists do benefit from performing in front of a huge TV audience.
Regarding the winners, Mr. Stoute states that "we cannot solely utilize album sales as the barometer," though after I finished reading his letter, which continually compares top selling hip-hop and pop artists to niche artists, I couldn't figure out how he would otherwise pick his winners. For someone with his perspective, arguing that commercial success is a justifiable means to determine cultural impact is understandable because he is a marketer, an advertiser, and a businessman with experience in the "in-culture."
What he is not, is an artist. His argument lacks an understanding of artistic merit and faith that the masses could appreciate such a thing.
Now, Mr. Stoute is not necessarily wrong to believe the Grammy's should reflect popular culture, but is that the goal? Perhaps the Grammy Awards should be used to showcase the diversity of our musical culture.
How are Grammy Awards chosen?
The Grammy Awards are organized and hosted by the National Academy of Recordings Arts & Sciences, or NARAS. To be a member of NARAS and have the ability to vote for the Grammy's, you must have a creative or technical credit on a minimum number of commercially available recordings. Nearly every musician I work with qualifies to be a voting member of NARAS. All we have to do is pay the $150 yearly membership fee to be able to vote (tickets to attend the show cost extra)!
Voting for the Grammy's is as democratic a process as any in this country. The politicking begins at an album's release when boatloads of cash are dumped into the marketing budget. Mainstream artists like Kanye West are given far more marketing support than Herbie Hancock because releases with the lowest common denominator of taste have greater sales potential.
Similarly, Justin Bieber was scooped up and fed into the machine because Scooter Braun saw him on YouTube and knew this could could make him money; meanwhile like Esperanza Spalding was broke, yet honing her craft with encouragement from artists like Pat Metheny (who to my knowledge has no financial investment in her career).
Decisions like those by West's label and Braun were made with a goal of increasing profit, while Hancock or Metheny simply wanted to enrich our culture and progress their form of art.
I was a voting member of NARAS in 2008 when I worked for Universal Music Group (they paid my membership fee). I remember being in a meeting where the CEO told all the voting members what our "priority" records were that year. Labels within UMG try to trade votes to make sure their big records win Grammy's. Of course, nobody ever tells you who to vote for, but the message is clear. A Grammy win results in more sales, and labels need a return on their biggest investments.
Yet despite behind the scenes meddling, artists like Herbie Hancock and Esperanza Spalding still win.
In 2008, I left that Grammy meeting and did not vote for Kanye West or John Mellencamp--our CEO's "priority" that year. I voted for Herbie. I listened to whatever Mellencamp's album was called, and I even owned Graduation, but I was utterly blown away by River.
Music like that is a rare and wonderful thing. Herbie Hancock is one of the artists that inspired me to make music and record my first album, which qualified me to be a voting member of NARAS, which allowed me the opportunity to acknowledge his artistic contribution to our culture. Damn straight I was going to vote for him.
Do the Grammy Awards share our values?
Should the Grammy's award the artists and releases that did the best business, as Steve Stoute believes, or should the awards go to those that made the best music? Right now it seems to be trying to do both, which simply won't work.
The Grammy Awards should either be part of the machine and celebrate what is popular, or nurture the jungle and promote the diversity of our musical culture.
It's easy to measure business success and exposure, and very difficult to measure artistry. The former are easily influenced by marketing and PR dollars, while the latter stands on merit alone. Some music is created with the goal of making money, though I believe most is made to simply to create.
Let's pause for a review: What type of people vote for the Grammy winners? People like me. And just so we're clear, I'm all about musicality, talent, and artistic statements crafted over a long career arc. I'm not interested in what sells the best, but what sounds the best.
Herbie Hancock is exactly the kind of artist I cheer for. Not only do I love his music, but I love the way he approaches his craft. He was a considerable talent as a child and performed with the Chicago Symphony when he was eleven years old. He continued to hone his craft playing in Miles Davis' band, and eventually created a string of brilliant jazz/funk albums that helped lay the groundwork for hip-hop music. In 1983 he brought hip-hop culture further into the mainstream with his Grammy-winning single, "Rockit," featuring the prominent record scratching sounds of GrandMixer D.ST.
By the time Kanye West made Graduation, he was standing on the shoulders of artists like Herbie Hancock. This is not to diminish the music Kanye makes, or even compare their two albums, but to frame these two artists in a broader cultural perspective.
Each year, the Grammy Awards provides an excellent platform to inform a wider audience of great works of art. Albums like River: The Joni Letters, and artists like Esperanza Spalding can be exposed to viewers who typically "discover" music through the narrow channels of commercial radio or very calculated marketing. Of course, the televised portion of the Grammy Awards must still compete for ratings and advertiser dollars. In this way it is very much a part of the pop culture machine. However, I always hope that a few artists are lifted out of the jungle by their peers to be recognized on a national stage.
Our culture has a rich musical history that extends far beyond record sales, television ratings, and all things marketable. It is vital that we expose people to cultural diversity if for no other reason, to promote diversity. Even greater than that, music is a way for people to express and experience the world in a meaningful way. It brings people together, provides solace to the lonely, and allows us to share the human experience in a universal language.
This is what I value, and I hope you, NARAS, Neil Portnow, the Grammy's, and even Steve Stoute, will help me promote the value of creative works of art.