Thursday Nov. 18 was an eventful day for Harvey Mason, jr., CEO of the Recording Academy. He got an advance copy of the 64th annual Grammy nominations, which were due to be announced publicly the following Tuesday.
What did he think? “I was pleased with the work of our voters,” he began, but added, “I also thought in the general field [Big Four categories], we had the potential to open ourselves to other genres and other opportunities.”
He noticed that the slate of eight nominees in each of the Big Four categories – album, record and song of the year, plus best new artist – was light on rap. Saweetie was nominated for best new artist, and a pair of hip-hop artists who cross genre lines, Lil Nas X and The Kid LAROI, were up for album and song of the year and best new artist, respectively. But that was it for the most dominant genre in music.
That night, Mason was at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas for the 22nd annual Latin Grammy Awards. The Latin Grammys expanded from five to 10 nominees in each of their Big Four categories in 2012, six years before the Grammys made a more conservative expansion from five to eight in their Big Four categories.
Seated next to Tammy Hurt, chair of the Academy’s board of trustees, Mason had an idea – to expand this year’s slate of Grammy nominees in each of the Big Four categories from eight to 10. Mason had a hunch that this would bring in more genres and make the nominations more representative.
Hurt was a fan of the Latin Grammys’ expanded categories. “When they read off the 10 nominees for best new artist, my thought was that’s really incredible,” she told Billboard in a separate interview. “You could see the expansiveness of it, being more inclusive. It felt right – looking at all the amazing new artists that were being lifted up.”
The next day, Mason called Hurt to float the idea. Hurt approached the board of trustees’ executive committee (the four officers supplemented by four other trustees). She also brought the matter to the full board of trustees.
Mason had earlier indicated that he didn’t know which artists and other music professionals would benefit from the expansion. It turns out that was only half-true. He didn’t know when he first set the idea in motion to Hurt, but he knew before the weekend was over. “I knew as of probably Saturday or Sunday,” he told Billboard in an interview this week.
When Mason got the names of the additional nominees that would be added, his hunch that expanding to 10 nominees would bring in more representation was confirmed. The expansion would bring in a rap album (Kanye West’s DONDA) for album of the year and a rapper (Baby Keem, cousin of Kendrick Lamar) for best new artist. It would also bring in Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” for record of the year, giving the genre-spanning provocateur a clean sweep of the top three categories. The expansion would also bring in a global music artist, Arooj Aftab, for best new artist.
The expansion would also bring in four pop titles – Taylor Swift’s Evermore for album of the year, ABBA’s “I Still Have Faith in You” for record of the year (the one jaw-dropping surprise in the Big Four categories), and Brandi Carlile’s “Right on Time” and the Doja Cat/SZA confection “Kiss Me More” for song of the year.
While the goal of the expansion wasn’t to bring in more pop artists, Swift is, of course, one of the biggest stars in music (and the reigning album of the year winner); Carlile had a breakout moment on the Grammy stage three years ago singing “The Joke,” which was nominated for record and song of the year.
The trustees convened on Monday Nov. 22 in a previously arranged Zoom call. This was just hours before the nominations list would be released to key press outlets, ahead of the public unveiling the following day.
According to Mason, he told no one which artists would benefit from the expansion. “The idea of who would be pulled up was not something I was going to use as leverage to encourage or discourage anyone to vote for this. The idea had to be voted on in principle,” he said. “I did say this is an opportunity for us to include more genres and more diversity in our [Big Four categories].”
In separate interviews, Hurt and trustee Tracy Gershon confirmed Mason’s claim that no names were mentioned. “He said for a well-rounded [list], to get more genres and diversity, I think we need to do this,” Gershon said. “We obviously knew he knew something. None of us asked. None of us wanted to know. We shouldn’t know. Our decision was made on [the principle of] opening it up.”
The Zoom session ran more than two hours. According to Gershon, there was a lot of resistance to the expansion at first. “A lot of people at the beginning were like, ‘No way,’” she said. “But we talked about it. We raised pros and cons and we came to the vote we did.
“There was tons of discussion because we [were] making a decision like this in the final hour,” Gershon said. “How is that going to be perceived? We talked about that and thought we’d rather have us take a hit, as the press will do and figure that there was some tomfoolery, which there wasn’t, but keep it as diverse as we could and give some opportunity. Our biggest fear was exactly what happened – the press would think ‘Aha! Something’s up here.’ We weighed that and said, ‘OK, we know we’re going to [raise suspicions], but we feel like it’s still the right decision to make.’”
The expansion required a simple majority vote of the trustees – 22 of 43. In the end, the vote wasn’t even close. Forty trustees voted for the expansion, only three opposed.
The main objection, all three agreed, was that the move would look last-minute and rushed, rather than the result of a careful, deliberate process.
“My response was, ‘Board, I respect that and I understand that, but I think the new version of the Academy is that we are able to move quickly,’” Mason said. “We are able to make decisions based not on what are people going to think or how does this look, but rather, what’s in the best interest of our members?
“I think anyone who was caught off guard by this, I’m sorry you were caught off guard by this, but you really should prepare because there’s going to be more. If the Academy can’t move at the speed of culture, we’re going to be left behind. That goes for anybody playing in this space right now. Music moves quick. Our industry moves quick. We have to be able to pivot. We have to be able to be able to move and accommodate what’s going on. Otherwise, we’re sleeping.
“I’m not really going to sit around and wait for things to happen. Paralysis of analysis is something that I have disdain for. We’re not going to continue to sit back and let things happen and then try to catch up. We’re going to move quickly because that’s how our industry moves and that is now how the Academy moves.”
Gershon agrees. “I think the Academy for so long has been playing defense,” she said. “We want to play offense. Let’s get ahead of things instead of always being way behind. I was one of those people who thought, ‘Oh my God, we take forever to make decisions.’ This is like the Titanic and trying to steer the ship. It’s so slow to turn. Now, with new blood on the trustees’ board and in leadership, we’re not just sitting there pondering. Let’s try some new things, let’s try to get ahead of the curve.”
Mason is a big believer that the Academy needs to be more representative of today’s music scene.
“The Grammys are really at their best when the nominations reflect music and the music community and what’s going on in the year,” he said. “Every year we’re trying to make sure that we have a well-rounded snapshot of the year in music.”
The Academy shared previously privately held statistics with Billboard that bear out Mason’s contentions.
Current voting members (which includes the new membership class as well as veteran members) were asked to identify which genres they are most aligned with. (They could check more than one genre.) Pop led with 26%, followed by jazz (19%), rock (18%), R&B (17%), American roots music (15%), alternative (13%) and classical (12%).
You may have noticed that rap wasn’t on the list. Fewer than 10% of current Grammy voters listed rap as a genre they are aligned with. That’s also true of country, dance/electronic music, Latin, gospel, children’s, comedy, contemporary instrumental, musical theater, new age, reggae, spoken word, visual media and world music.
The Academy also shared with Billboard the same findings for their new membership class. Of the new class, pop is still in the lead with 32%, but R&B is significantly higher with 26%. Those two genres are followed by jazz (21%), alternative (20%), rock (18%), rap and American roots music (17% each), world music (15%), dance/electronic music (14%), contemporary instrumental (12%), classical and gospel (11% each), and country and Latin (10% each).
Fewer than 10% of new members aligned with children’s, comedy, musical theater, new age, reggae, spoken word or visual media.
No contemporary R&B or hip-hop album has won album of the year since OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below 18 years ago. There’s a perception among some leading contemporary R&B and hip-hop artists that the Grammys will invite them to perform on the show, give them front-row seats and awards in genre categories, but will rarely give them awards in marquee categories.
Mason is aware of that perception, and the friction it has caused. “We take it very seriously,” he says. “First off, I sympathize with some of the issues that have been raised. But I do think it’s got to be correlated to our voting membership. As we start to learn more about the genres that are preferenced by our voting membership, we start to understand why some of the voting goes the way that it does. Which in turn has made us realize ‘Okay, we’ve got to make sure our voters are reflective of what’s happening in the industry and what type of music is being made.’
“That’s what has led us to our membership initiative, which is inviting different groups to join the Academy instead of doing what we’ve done in the past, which was sit back and wait for people to ask us to join. We can no longer afford to do that. We have to make sure we’re going into the different genres and inviting people – relevant music people – to come and join so we can make sure when it comes time to vote, and when there have been groups that have felt underrepresented or underserved, that we have the membership to support them and honor them with a reflective vote.”
Drake refused his two Grammy nominations this year. Mason said that he hasn’t personally spoken to Drake, but he did speak to his label and management. “[Having an artist refuse his nominations] is not something that I want to see, but I understand it. I can sympathize with some of their concerns and I do not take them lightly. When somebody as important as Drake voices those concerns, I pay very close attention. It’s unfortunate, but more than anything, it’s something that makes us at the Academy take notice of what we need to do to be better; to evolve into the organization that represents today’s music.”
And that was the motivation behind expanding the field of nominees in the Big Four categories this year, on the hunch (at least partly borne out) that more nominees would bring more representation.
As Hurt puts it: “It was really an opportunity for us to make the nominations more representative and more reflective of the state of music today. Representative membership in this organization is fundamental to everything we do. It was just an opportunity for us to get it right.”