My friends often joke that I live under a rock. Apart from Discord, I’ve never signed up for any social media, which has resulted in me being almost entirely disconnected from events in pop culture. Yet, I still get more than an earful every year or so when the Grammys roll around. You’d have to really live under a rock to not hear about them. However, I personally don’t care. To me it’s just celebrities I don’t know handing awards to other celebrities I don’t know, and occasionally someone I’ve actually heard of wins an award. As a contrast, one of my friends, in particular, is a massive fan; he always watches the whole thing and this year our group chat was filled with his horror at his favorite artist (Phoebe Bridgers) not getting any awards, and his complaints that the competition favors celebrities more than real musicians. This complaint is actually pretty valid, as the Grammys do have a tendency to favor those who draw the public’s eye rather than those who produce what is commonly thought to be brilliant music. Some of what we call the best music artists in history have never won a Grammy, being outcompeted by celebrities and those who top the charts.
This raises the question of who exactly decides this, and why this bias exists. When I started researching for this article, I initially assumed that the results were skewed towards celebrities as part of a play for better ad revenue. This guess actually ended up being primarily false, but not entirely. The people who vote on Grammy awards are the Recording Academy voting members, which might seem confusing at first for those who have never heard of this organization, like myself. The term just refers to anyone who works in the music industry (be it writing, singing, producing, editing, or engineering equipment), and is notable in some way. The criteria for being “notable” is defined by complicated Academy requirements that aren’t really worth taking the time to explain fully here, but it’s basically if you have at least a few minor hits under your belt. These voting members both votes for nominations on 20 of the 89 categories (so they can choose the ones they know best about), and they vote for the winners of each category. This system itself is actually fairly systematic, but like any system of voting, it’s only as good as its participants.
What seems to happen here is that when it comes to placing votes for the winners, members of the Academy will be voting in a category they don’t have expertise on, and so naturally they will vote for the person whose name they recognize. And who are these people most likely to be recognized by name alone? Celebrities. This human failing does tend to skew the results of those who have drawn a lot of attention to themselves, rather than their music, and this selective ignorance is a clear flaw in the system.
There are, however, three layers of selection before the music even gets to the hands of the voting members, and these layers are given less attention than the typical voting process. The first of these happens even before submission, where people who operate under major record labels often get their albums sidelined by the label for those who might have a better shot at winning. Whether this is necessarily a bad thing is up for debate, as there’s an argument to be made that if an album has less chance of winning, it’s less good – which does check out, but not always. For example, the owners of major record labels do understand that celebrities are more likely to get nominated and win awards than smaller artists, so they might choose the more well-known name to send off to the academy.
The second barrier is the screeners. This is a group of approximately 150 experts who pick which submissions go into the nomination pool to be voted on by the members of the Academy. This committee appears to be in a position to make more informed decisions, rather than being rigged against smaller artists. From the little information I could find about it from its members, it actually attempts to counteract the general bias against celebrities by striking albums from superstars, anticipating the preference of “clueless academy members” towards Top 40 stars.
The third layer is surprisingly secretive. I could find relatively little information on how it works and its internal processes in general. The best way to explain its purpose is that the voting members of the Academy don’t nominate 7 or 8 people for the awards, they nominate 20. There’s an additional committee in between that I could find only very sparse information on, as the Recording Academy isn’t keen on saying anything about it. From the singular existent interview that a committee member has given, this committee is responsible for “checking” the Academy’s decisions on who to nominate. This process is highly secretive and designed so that nobody can know all of it other than the accountants who are obligated not to say anything. This is an unknown, and so it is hard to say what effect it has on the nomination process, and bias or lack thereof within.
When I first got the idea to write this article and began my research for it, I was expecting to find a massively biased system, but I believe I could say I’ve found evidence that it’s at least attempting to avoid this expectation. I hope the facts I’ve dug up prove to be informative, but as someone who has never actually watched a full Grammys without either quitting an hour in or falling asleep, I’m by no means the expert. Whether you believe the winners of the Grammys are deserving, or if you think it’s an inherently biased system, I’ll leave the decision all up to you!