It’s not the winning, it’s the taking cash

Arcade FireThis week, awards ceremonies have still very much been in the news. In the UK, talk has turned to the NME Awards, where most seem to be wondering how Matt Bellamy can possibly have won the Hottest Man award four years in a row. However, in the US a debate is raging over the relevance of the Grammy Awards as a whole, when artists who are liked by the voting panel can beat artists who have huge fanbases.

The simple answer is that the thing that is the most popular is rarely the best or most creative. And assuming awards are handed out to the things that are best, rather than the things that are most popular, you’re always going to get a more diverse selection from an industry judging system than if you just went and asked members of the public. Because then whoever has the biggest and most proactive fanbase will win, regardless of creativity.

Look at the NME Awards, for example. Voted for by the public, the award for best festival almost always goes to Glastonbury. And when it doesn’t, it goes to Reading and Leeds. Why, because these are the biggest festivals, and the ones the highest number of NME readers go to. So much so, it’s almost not worth asking.

That’s not to say that having a panel or whole academy of industry judges is perfect, nor that they wouldn’t occasionally pick Glasto or Reading to win the Best Festival prize. But other events would almost certainly get more of a look in, if only because some of the judges will be more aware of what else is out there simply as a result of their job. And where a small panel decides who actually meet, well then people are forced to argue the case for why they think their favourite is also ‘best’.

And, of course, less mainstream acts do occasionally triumph even when the public decides, albeit not often. But some of you will remember the Best British Breakthrough Act category at the 1999 BRIT Awards, which was put out to a public vote. Despite being on their third album by that point, Belle & Sebastian beat the likes of Steps, 5ive, Billie Piper, Gomez, Cornershop and other chart toppers to the prize because they had a large (for the time) email database. With mainstream internet use still in its infancy in 1999, Belle & Sebastian just had more geeks amongst their fanbase than anyone else.

But judging panel based events will always throw up a few lesser known winners, and they always have done. Which makes all the debate in the US this week a bit odd. Okay, the initial burst of vitriol from fans of the likes of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Eminem (who felt their favourite artists’ rightful awards had been stolen from them by the like of Esperanza Spalding and Arcade Fire) was understandable. But now it’s people within the industry who are fighting over the validity of the awards.

Best known as the manager of rapper Nas, Steve Stoute also runs an urban-music focused marketing partnerships agency called Translation. And while Bieber fans were taking to Twitter asking who the hell “Arcadia Fyre” were, Stoute was penning a stern letter to the Grammy’s parent organisation the National Academy Of Recording Arts And Sciences, and its president Neil Portnow, which he then published in a $40,000 full-page New York Times advert. Presumably most Bieber fans don’t have access to that sort of cash.

Stoute said that the US industry’s big awards show had become “a series of hypocrisies and contradictions”, and called on the pop stars of America to make a stand against the awards machine.

The letter says: “I have come to the conclusion that the Grammy Awards have clearly lost touch with contemporary popular culture. My being a music fan has left me with an even greater and deeper sense of dismay … We must acknowledge the massive cultural impact of Eminem and Kanye West and how their music is shaping, influencing and defining the voice of a generation. How is it that Justin Bieber, an artist that defines what it means to be a modern artist, did not win Best New Artist? While these very artists that the public acknowledges as being worthy of their money and fandom are snubbed year after year at the Grammys, the awards show has absolutely no qualms in inviting these same artists to perform. Interesting that the Grammys understands cultural relevance when it comes to using Eminem’s, Kayne West’s or Justin Bieber’s name in the billing”.

Calling on artists to demand that Grammy bosses change the “system”, Stoute continued: “I imagine that next year there will be another televised super-close-up of an astonished front-runner as they come to the realisation before a national audience… that he or she was used. To all of the artists that attend the Grammys: Stop accepting the invitation to be the upset of the year and demand that this body upholds its mission for advocacy and support of artistry as culture evolves. Demand that they change this system and truly reflect and truly acknowledge your art”.

I’m not exactly sure how he thinks the voting system should be changed. Presumably he wants Grammy voters to write a list of which artists they think are most popular, rather than the ones they think are best. Actually, in that case you could get rid of the voting system altogether and just use existing sales or airplay data, which would save time at least.

Following the New York Times ad, The Hollywood Reporter pulled together a handful of responses to Stoute’s letter that had been posted online by US music industry players, including Tommy Boy founder Tom Silverman, industry commentator Bob Lefsetz, and former Grokster head Wayne Russo. None seemed to agree with him explicitly, though all had their own strong opinions on the matter.

Lefsetz came closest to being in full agreement, though took Stoute’s ideas further, saying: “I don’t think only the acts should revolt, but the entire NARAS membership. What we’ve got here is a self-interested dictator in bed with corporations. This helps music how? Don’t get caught up in Stoute’s anger about who won what award. Do get pissed off that popular acts are being utilised for ratings when it’s clear they are not going to win. Where was that segment where the two accountants come out on stage and say that the voting was confidential? Obviously NARAS knew Arcade Fire was gonna win. Otherwise, why would they close the show?”

Russo, however, thought it was all a fuss over nothing: “I would have been more upset if Justin Bieber had won Best New Artist. The little snot is irritating. I doubt that anybody will be humming along to ‘Eenie Meenie’ ten or 20 years from now. You’ll probably not be hearing Michael Buble, Bono or Eric Clapton singing Kanye’s immortal lyric: ‘Let’s have a toast for the douche bags’. I happen to really like Eminem but the Grammys are like the Oscars in many ways. In 1970, John Wayne won the Oscar for Best Actor in ‘True Grit’. It wasn’t a great performance. He was just being John Wayne. He won for his body of work. So consider Eminem to be a 21st century John Wayne. He’ll have his day… and by the way, none of these guys are on food stamps”.

Meanwhile, producer Jermaine Dupris, who was a member of the Grammy voting board until he resigned from NARAS in protest in 2004 over the reaction to then girlfriend Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction, took the opposite view to Stoute. Well, he agreed urban music wasn’t always well represented on the winners list, but he didn’t agree that the way to overcome that problem was a boycott. He argued that what was needed was more representatives of urban music getting involved with NARAS.

He wrote: “[When I was on the voting panel] I was the youngest person in the room; not that being old has anything to do with it. Not only was I the youngest person in the room, but I was the only valid hip hop person in the room. We are not on the board as young executives. We have so many young, black executives that claim they’re executives, and say they do this. But they’re not out here doing the work. It should be more people like Steve Stoute on that board”.

Whether anything will come of any of this remains to be seen. It’s not like industry folk don’t complain every year when their artists fail to take home any trophies. But of course you’re going to want the big names there, even if they haven’t delivered the ‘best’ music that year. Because awards events aren’t really about giving pop stars a warm fuzzy feeling inside. They are about selling records. Big names bring big audiences, who can then also be introduced to newer or more alternative talent. I’m no big fan of music awards shows, but surely that’s a good thing? If you can expose Arcade Fire to tens of millions of people who haven’t previously heard of them by getting Rihanna to mime along to a song, then that’s a good job done well as far as I’m concerned.

But I’ll give the final word to Arcade Fire’s manager Scott Rodger, who said in an email to the aforementioned Lefsetz: “Arcade Fire deserved the win this year. They made the best album. If the award was names ‘Album Sales Of The Year’ award, there would be no discussion. Stoute’s letter was a nice piece of self-publicity. Did he see Kanye’s tweets when we won and the praise he gave us? He needs to tune in. Eminem made a big selling album but it was far from being his best work. Katy Perry made a big pop record that simply didn’t have weight or credibility. Gaga’s repackage, great album but it was a repackage of the main release. I think everyone felt it was going to be Lady Antebellum’s moment having won five out of six awards to that point. We all felt that way, too”.

He continued: “I’m proud of this band and what they have achieved. We didn’t lobby any organisation for this, nor did the band play the game. We paid our own overhead to do the event, thus the lack of on stage gimmicks. No label picked up the tab. Arcade Fire are now one of the biggest live acts in the world. It’s not all about record sales. It’s about making great records and it’s about building a loyal fan base. The band make great albums, they’re not a radio-driven singles band. On top of that, they own their own masters and copyrights and are in complete control of their own destiny. Things couldn’t be better”.

This article is an amalgamation of two pieces I wrote this week for CMU, here and here. For audio discussion of the Steve Stoute debate (like you’ve not already had enough in text form) and more, listen to the CMU podcast, which you can download from iTunes here.

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