The Grammy Voting Process: One Voter’s Perspective

Tonight is the 53rd Annual Grammy Award Show, with the pre-telecast award ceremony starting at 4pm ET. This yearly event continues to disappoint as performers who are clearly not the best take home the awards for “Best of” in categories in which they are nominated. Not only is this frustrating and disappointing as Recording Academy voting member, it is doubly frustrating as music fan. So, why does this happen year after year? The answer is simple: the sheer volume of submissions, and the Grammy process itself, make it impossible for the best in any category to really win. I’ve been a voting member for almost 6 years, and I thought it might be interesting to walk through the Grammy nomination and voting process and give some insight as to why this happens.

The Grammys and the Recording Academy

First, to understand the Grammy Awards you should know about the organization behind the awards, the Recording Academy. The Recording Academy (the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences or NARAS) is made up of the the people that create and produce records not the people who write the songs. The membership includes singers, instrumentalists, producers and recording engineers. And, with few exceptions, the Grammys are awarded based on performance, production and technical merit with a couple of awards going to songwriters. The Grammys are not like the People’s Choice Awards, where fan favorites should win, only the technical best should win.

There are 3 phases of the Grammy voting process, and I’ll go into each one. As a voting member, there are some aspects of the process I am not allowed to reveal, but you should get the general idea. Now, let’s look at the Grammy process.

Part 1: The Submission Process

The Grammy process starts with submissions. The submission process is fairly straight forward. Pretty much any commercially released album or song released within the nomination period can be submitted for nomination consideration in one or more categories. Submissions must be made by a member, but the performers, producers and engineers that created the works do not need to be members. Anyone can win. So, if you have a band with an album out on iTunes, you can ask any member to submit your album for consideration.

Based on the huge number of nomination choices in each category, the number of initial submissions that the Grammy review team has to review must be overwhelming. But the Grammy team actually does listen to, catalog and review each submission for completeness and accuracy, and to make sure that they belong in the categories in which it is submitted.

This is where the reviewers make sure that a fiasco like Jethro Tull being nominated for “Best Heavy Metal Performance” doesn’t happen again. But, mistakes do happen.

Part 2: The Nomination Process

After all the sorting and categorizing is done, the nominations lists are distributed to the voting members. All members get to make nominations in the general categories, like “Best New Artist,” “Album of the Year” and so on, but we are limited to making nominations in only a handful of other categories. Being a rock musician, and mainly a fan of all rock-based music, I typically make nominations in the “Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals,” “Best Hard rock Performance,” “Best Metal Performance” and the like. I really have no business voting for “Best Rap Song,” “Best Improvised Jazz Solo” or “Best Gospel Song.”

The nomination process is the most difficult part of the Grammy Awards process for members. Why is it so difficult? The sheer volume of submissions is too much, and there is no access to the submitted recordings. This year there were over 600 submissions to review for “Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals.” Of the over 600 submissions, I think I heard of about 20% of the bands, and actually heard only 10% of that 20%’s albums.

With a very short time to return nominations it is impossible to review all the submissions in all the categories, much less this one Grammy category alone. I know. I’ve tried. The Recording Academy does not make the recordings available for review, and discourages the submitters from campaigning and giving away review copies to voting members. One year I worked my way through the list of submissions, looking each one up on iTunes, MySpace and, and made it halfway through the A’s before, like many members, I gave up and started looking for anything familiar.

While reviewing the submissions, we will come across the occasional “Jethro Tull” scenario; a submission that is clearly in the wrong category. I’m not sure I can give away the complete details, but this year a certain super-popular, hipster, indie band from Brooklyn that was certified Gold in 2008 for their debut album, was submitted in the “Best New Artist” category. Bands can only be nominated for “Best New Artist” during the year that establishes the band’s public identity. Ultimately this band did not receive the nomination. This year the “Best Metal Performance” category included several mainstream rock bands and like the past few years all the “Best Alternative” categories were full of mainstream band submissions.

After all the nomination votes are in, the votes are tabulated and the top 5 in each category become Grammy Nominees.

Part 3: The Voting Process

The nominations list is sent out to the voting members, and we’re back for more voting. Like the nomination process, all voting members can vote in the general categories and in just a handful of other categories. This is a much easier process than the nomination process. There are less to choose from in each category, and for the last several years the Recording Academy has worked out licensing deals with virtually all the nominees and provided a portal for voting members to listen to all the nominated music before sending in our votes. We submit our votes and wait for the winners to be revealed at the Grammys.

Part 4: And The Grammy Goes To…

So, that’s it. Now you know the process from start to finish and have a good idea why the “best” does not always win. With number of submissions to consider for nominations, is it really a surprise that whichever bands are currently over-saturating radio and television are the ones getting nominated and winning the awards? I know I make my best effort to listen to as much as I can, but I can’t speak for other members. But, the nominations list does speak loudly.

Would you be able to vote for the best in each category? How would you change the process to make it more fair and balanced?