Commentary: Grammy's new artist rule changes and why they didn't go far enough
First, some background and then our reasoning. After Lady GaGa, who was the clear front runner, was declared ineligible because “Just Dance” had been nominated for best dance track a year before, Grammy governing body, NARAS (the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) went back to the drawing board to reevaluate the rules. (Ultimately, Zac Brown Band took home the best new artist trophy this year.)
Now, future Lady GaGas will have no such issues. Effective immediately, any artist who has been nominated for a Grammy, but has not won, and who fits the remaining criteria will be eligible.
Here are amended rules for qualification for Best New Artist with the change in italics:
The current eligibility requirements state that the artist must have released, as a featured performing artist, at least one album but not more than three; and the artist must not have been entered for Best New Artist more than three times, including as a performing member of an established group. Any previous GRAMMY nomination for the artist as performer precludes eligibility in the Best New Artist category (including a nomination as an established performing member of a nominated group.) If an artist/group is nominated (but does not win) for the release of a single or as a featured artist or collaborator on a compilation or other artist's album before the artist/group has released an entire album (and becomes eligible in this category for the first time), the artist/group may enter this category in the eligibility year during which his/her/their first album is released.
A little background here: Even if it’s often been behind the curve, NARAS has done a fair job of amending the rules to adjust to changes in the music industry without kowtowing to every passing fad. For example, after Whitney Houston was deemed ineligible for best new artist eons ago because she sang back up on Luther Vandross’s records, the eligibility requirement was amended to allow artists who had sung backing vocals, but were not the featured performer, to be eligible for best new artist when their debut release came out.
The three-album rule came about several years ago when Shelby Lynne, who had released something like eight albums but had flown largely under the mainstream radar, won best new artist. For those of us who had been following the supremely talented Lynne for years, it was a mockery of what the category stood for. How could an act who had been releasing albums for something like 10 years suddenly be crowned best new artist? Like every rule, this one cuts both ways: for example, Phoenix, which finally broke through last year with “Lisztomania,” was not eligible for best new artist because it was the group’s fourth album.
Here’s where NARAS had the chance to be with the times—not even ahead of the curve—and failed. When changing the rules this year, NARAS should have amended “album” to track. As album sales continue to decline (both as a physical and as a digital commodity), NARAS has to find some way to acknowledge new artists who are breaking through, who might not have had an album drop yet, but have had significant impact through singles. For example, should Kid Cudi have been eligible for best new artist this go-round even though his album did not come out during the eligibility period based on his success? Will Drake be eligible for best new artist next year despite the fact that he’s released several mix tapes? Do they count toward his three albums? Or should he have been eligible for best new artist already, but wasn’t because he didn’t release an “official” album until this year?
The Grammys, which hold themselves up to be the gold standard for artistic music awards, needs to figure out how to move into the digital age. To be sure, it is making some strides, in terms of allowing digital only tracks to be eligible in many categories. We understand the desire that there be criteria that must be met to maintain the integrity of the awards, but continued freshening is vital. The Grammys already get knocked around—often unfairly—for seeming behind the times even though they’ve never pretended to be the faux-hip MTV Awards and have made strong efforts to bring younger voters into the fold—but it’s not enough. Maybe next year.