I hate awards ceremonies. I hate the idea that we take all of the creative output in a year, narrow it down to four or five, and then pick one as the best of that year. But I still care about the Grammys.
I don’t mean to say that I care about their selection process. I mean that I care about them as a case study because as far as I can tell, the executives at the Grammys are doing everything they can to make themselves irrelevant.
In 2016, Taylor Swift, arguably the biggest artist of the last few years, won Album of the Year. Swift was at the height of her 1989 success and she was throwing shade at Kanye West. Her fans should have tuned in. The Grammys should have been relevant. Instead, viewership hit an all-time low.
And it’s not just viewership that is suffering. Artists like West himself are criticizing the Grammys for their lack of relevance. Back in February, he tweeted, “I would like to sit down with Neil Portnow right now. I feel the Grammy awarding system is way off and completely out of touch.”
Then West said what really matters. He said, “All artists have a problem with it and I’m going to fix it for us all right now. Neil please reach out as soon as possible so we can make the Grammys culturally relevant again.”
And how did Portnow respond? The Twitter equivalent of “Have your people call my people.”
That’s essentially their problem. The Grammys are driven by ego, by tradition, by success of the past. They don’t scan the future. Portnow isn’t even on Twitter. Even if you never use it, you can’t hope to understand culture, understand the future, if you have no connection to those who are going to make it.
And I get it. Every few weeks there’s a new app or platform to join. It’s exhausting and has the potential to be a gigantic waste of time. But if you want to be relevant to your audience, you have to be where your audience is. You have to adopt early.
Early adoption is why the Billboard Music Awards are more culturally relevant than the Grammys. It’s why I think they will also earn more respect than the Grammys in a few years.
The difference is Billboard uses data instead of politics to determine what wins. They don’t ask a group of music industry professionals to vote because then politics wins, not culture. Then the people who actually listen to the category determine who was the best for that year.
Remember when the Grammy’s decided Macklemore released a better hip-hop album than Kendrick Lamar? Terrible mistakes like that doesn’t happen at Billboard. Billboard determines their winners through different, ever changing avenues “including album and digital songs sales, radio airplay, streaming, touring and social interactions on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Spotify and other popular online destinations for music.”
Not only does Billboard scan YouTube, Spotify and other online platforms, but they give those artists a chance. Artists who started from YouTube, people like Tori Kelly last year or Troye Sivan this year, help bring in viewership because the young people who shape current culture care about them.
And that kind of adoption works. In 2016, Billboard Music Awards pulled in the most viewers for that Sunday against Game 3 of the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder series, Game of Thrones, and the finale of The Walking Dead.
The Grammys would never.
I’m not saying that the Grammys should completely abandon the way that they operate and follow Billboard’s lead. For one, they’re too late now, Billboard already owns that lane. But also, they still have a hugely respected brand. Young artists don’t grow up dreaming of making their Billboard Music Award speech. It’s always the Grammys.
If they want to keep it that way, though, they’re going to have to make some fundamental changes. Portnow should actually take that meeting with West. Listen instead of dictate. Be about it rather than just talking about it.
Brands have to start paying attention the waves of the future, rather than resting on traditions of the past.
Worst case scenario, Portnow downloads Twitter or streams a Chance the Rapper song, hates it and goes back to being the president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. The net loss is about 2 hours.
But the best case scenario, Portnow integrates these new sources of culture into the Grammy voting process, saves the brand he’s in charge of, brings in viewership (read: money) and becomes a case study for how to be a hugely successful president and businessman.
Plus I never have to see Macklemore win another hip hop award as long as I live.
Early adoption seems like the only way, really.