It's too late to save the Grammys
The Grammys are one of the music industry's longest-running, most revered, and most deeply corny traditions. Over the course of nearly six decades, it's provided a handful of iconic, and even genuinely moving moments, but those are massively outnumbered by all the dumb, willfully ignorant, and just plain head-slappingly wrong stuff it does year after year.
The Recording Academy seems to have started waking up recently to the fact that its hits have done a lot less to define its popular reputation as its many almost baroquely stupid misses, and for once it seems to be actually trying to keep up with the times rather than remaining several historical epochs behind current tastes. This year, for instance, they bent their own self-imposed rules to nominate Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book and its single "No Problem" in several different categories despite the fact that it wasn't released on an actual, officially recognized label after an intensive lobbying effort by fans on social media (and Chance himself on "Ultralight Beam"). It's a decidedly un-Grammy-like nod to the way that music works in 2017. It's also probably too little, too late.
The Grammys are currently facing down a couple of very real existential threats that are affecting the music industry as a whole. The first is the sheer volume of music being released these days. Adele's "Hello," the odds-on favorite to take home Record of the Year, came out all the way back in October of 2015. Gucci Mane has released six full-length projects since then. Drake's sent something like four thousand loosie singles up the charts. Kanye's released the same album twice, plus debuted two entire seasons of his clothing lines, had some sort of extended psychological crisis, and flip-flopped a couple times on being a Trump supporter (plus releasing a handful of loosie singles along the way). "Hello," released all the way back in the Obama administration—?all the way back before white people knew what dabbing is—doesn't even feel like it's part of the same decade.
These artists are flooding a market that's becoming more and more fractured every year. Unlike the movie industry, where major studios and their CGI-driven extended-universe tentpole series are pushing the modest indies that blossomed around the turn of the century out of theaters, music is seeing a talent explosion several orders of magnitude larger than what's happened in any other major media form.
While movies are getting fewer and bigger, music is turning its interest away from blockbuster megastars like Adele, Kanye, and Beyoncé and embracing a multitude of smaller acts narrowcasting to niche audiences. Music's future seems to lie in upstart acts like Chance, Lil Yachty, and Migos conducting guerilla incursions from the Internet fringes that occasionally are more and more frequently seizing enough power to impact the mainstream. It's hard to imagine how the Grammys could even begin to keep up with this insane volume of music coming out without adopting a twice-yearly schedule. Possibly even monthly.
It's hard to imagine how the Grammys could even begin to keep up with this insane volume of music coming out without adopting a twice-yearly schedule. Possibly even monthly.
And unlike past cult favorites who've made it into the mainstream—?who could usually be lured onto a major label, or at least a big indie with major label ties—?today's upstart artists don't see much to gain by signing up with a label at all. Recording has become this cheap, distribution means uploading a folder of files to Spotify's server, and word of mouth on social media's become as effective as big-budget promotional campaigns. Since Billboard started counting streams as sales, they can even score platinum records without relying on a label's help.
Chance got so powerful without label backing that he was able to convince the Grammys to change one of their most fundamental rules to accommodate him. Frank Ocean—?who delivered Def Jam a contract-fulfilling conceptual art piece before unleashing his masterful Blonde label-free—?gives so few fucks about the trappings of the old-school music biz that he didn't even submit it for Grammy consideration.
The thing is that the Recording Academy is made up of professionals who've spent their whole careers in the old-school music biz and rely on it for their continued existence. Things like mixtapes, or the potential for a musician to record a track on a laptop, post it on SoundCloud, and end up with a hit song—?a way of working that an entire generation has embraced—?are a clear and present danger to the people who vote for the Grammys. They may have let Chance slide, but it remains to see how much they're going to want to promote a bunch of people actively undermining their livelihoods.
Since those are the artists fans care the most about—I'm far from the only person who considers Blonde the clear choice for Album of the Year—?the Grammys are facing a choice between relevance and its voting members' skins that seems like a lose-lose situation any way you dice it.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.