How Will the Grammy Rule Changes Impact This Year’s Nominations?

For as long as most of us can remember, the process around the Grammy Awards has been a dark art, ostensibly determined by the 12,000-strong voting body of the Recording Academy — the nonprofit established to represent the music industry and stage the awards — but overseen, and some have said influenced, by an amorphous group of executives, trustees and committees.

While the awards’ final voting is monitored by the independent accounting firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, the nominating process is a complex internal procedure in which the finalists are narrowed down from tens of thousands of submitted recordings. For years, that procedure has been marred by accusations of self-interest and insider dealings on the part of that amorphous group — most egregiously last year, when the Weeknd, who’d had two of the most critically and commercially successful releases of the year with his “Blinding Lights” single and “After Hours” album, was inexplicably and seemingly spitefully snubbed from all nominations in favor of more niche releases.

In a tacit effort to clean up that process, earlier this year the Academy voted to eliminate the “secret” committees that previously had determined the final nominee lists in most categories. Throughout the 1990s, as the Academy’s collective voting members had continually showed themselves to be ossified and out of touch — naming Jethro Tull as best heavy metal group over Metallica, and twice voting snoozy “Unplugged” collections of an artist’s greatest hits as album of the year — the Academy decided to add a layer of final curation to most categories, instituting committees of experts and insiders to tweak the lists to reflect greater diversity, currency and — presumably, in a collateral development — self-interest.

While those committees — whose membership was kept anonymous, ostensibly to shield it from outside influence — were bound by rules against such self-interest, the music business is in many ways a small town and the Grammys are not only the industry’s most prestigious award but also a nearly sure-fire sales boost and publicity coup. Thus, although the committees indisputably freshened up the nominee lists, and brought awards and recognition to many deserving artists and artisans who might not otherwise have received them, it was sometimes hard not to envision those decisions being made by power brokers in smoke-filled rooms. That was the image propagated in a 2020 legal complaint from former Academy president-CEO Deborah Dugan, who was abruptly removed from office and later fired after just eight months on the job. Her complaint cited instances of “egregious conflicts of interest” and “improper self-dealing” in the nomination process, among other improprieties. The Weeknd’s snub seemed to confirm it. (Dugan and the Academy settled earlier this year.)

Ironically, the 2022 Grammys found themselves mired in controversy earlier this month — some six weeks before the nominations are announced on Nov. 23 — due to different committees: the screening committees that determine which categories a recording belongs in. The Nashville screening committee determined that country superstar and 2018 album of the year winner Kacey Musgraves’ latest effort, “Star-Crossed,” is actually a pop album — not country — a normally confidential decision that broke into the open when an impassioned letter from Musgraves’ label president, Cindy Mabe, to Dugan’s successor, Academy president-CEO Harvey Mason jr., was leaked to the press. In it, she accused the screening committee, which is comprised of members of the Academy’s powerful Nashville bloc, of self-interest by effectively blocking the singer from an almost certain sure Country Album of the Year nod, in an effort to improve other artists’ chances. The Academy has not commented officially on this ill-timed imbroglio, but insiders tell Variety that the matter went before three different screening committees — country, pop, and even the one that determines the “Big Four” top categories — and all came to the same conclusion. (For her part, Musgraves weighed in with defiant social media posts.)

The Musgraves controversy arose amid an aggressive campaign, led by Mason, to clean up the Grammys’ act. While he initially defended the Academy’s nominating process after the Weeknd’s snub, he and the organization’s powerful board of trustees moved quickly after this year’s ceremony, eliminating the nominating committees from all but a handful of specialized categories and overhauling the Grammys staff as well, with longtime awards chief Bill Freimuth leaving the organization in July. In announcing the elimination of the committees, Mason told Variety that he and the board believe the voting body has been sufficiently contemporized and educated to avoid the profligacies of the past, and that a narrowing of the genres categories in which members can vote — designed to ensure that they “vote only in their areas of expertise,” according to the revised rules — has rendered that final curation unnecessary. “We felt that our voters had evolved and the voting body had kind of graduated to the point where we didn’t need that extra layer,” he said.

All of which is a long way of leading up to saying that the 2022 Grammy nominations might look very different from past years. How different? Mason declines to speculate beyond saying, “We now have the most qualified membership we’ve ever had, and I think the members are going to be diligent and do the work it takes to evaluate the music they’re voting on,” pointing to the Academy’s recent get-out-the-vote efforts and adding that they will be even stronger running up to the 2022 awards.

Even knowledgeable industry insiders — all of whom insisted on anonymity before agreeing to speak for this report — were hardpressed to predict what might be coming, although most agreed that the nominee list is likely to become more populist. “There may be even more Taylor Swifts and fewer Jacob Colliers,” one posits, referencing one of several long-shot 2021 album of the year candidates. “People like to be on the winning side, so I think dark horses are really going to fall off — which is bad for more outsider artists like Brandi Carlile or H.E.R., who deserve the recognition and benefit from the validation that a big Grammy year brings.”

A second expert agrees. “I don’t think [votes] will go as easily to insiders: The absence of committees means that people will be looking more closely at the charts. Consequently, publicists will be getting paid more to launch campaigns and labels will be spending more money to get seen.”

However, a third insider notes that for your consideration campaigns have not changed much in the wake of the committees’ elimination. “The campaigns were always aimed at the 12,000 voting members, at least outwardly, and any attempts to reach people on the committees would have been done quietly.”

But, another insider asks, “Is the elimination of the nominating committees a big fakeout and things will just go on like before? Maybe we can’t avoid favors, and when [a powerful person or organization] says, ‘We really need this,’ they will still have influence.”

One artist manager adds, while laughing at their own cynicism, “I almost wish they still had the committees, because at least you could clandestinely lobby the people you thought might be on one!”

Inevitably, the first round of any new process is a learning experience and lessons will be taken up quickly. “I think we’re going to see almost immediately who and how many of those 12,000 people are actually voting,” one longtime insider says. “Even if the voting body has become more diverse, are those new members actually voting? Will the top categories be filled with Black music, which would be a reflection of popularity and influence right now? We’ll have to see.”

Ultimately, the insider adds, “Not having committees also means there’s no one to blame for the outcome except for those 12,000-whatever members. There’s a lot riding on the nominations this year — including the Academy’s credibility.”

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