Why the Grammy Awards only got it half right with the new sampling rule
The Grammy Awards governing body, the Recording Academy, has never been one to make rash decisions when it comes to modifying the awards procedure, so here, in 2014, they have made a major decision regarding sampling: Starting with the Feb. 8, 2015 Grammy Awards, songs that include samples or interpolations of previously written songs will be allowed in all songwriting categories, including the coveted Song of the Year.
Is this a good decision? I’m not so sure. In some ways, the Grammys are so cautious in making changes that they miss the cultural significance of that musical moment (and that is partially the Grammys’ point: they aren’t meant to bow to trends or fads).
On the plus side, this is simply an acknowledgement that a new, creative work that stands on its own that uses a sample to add some zing or to salute an influence, shouldn’t be exempt because of the sample. That’s throwing the baby out with the bath water to automatically exclude such a song.
On the other hand, some songs use the sample as the entire basis for the tune and the rest is built out from the sample. I’m not so sure those songs should eligible. If I were on the Board of Trustees, I would have voted to allow sampling and interpolations, but I would have put a cap on the percentage of the song that can be the sample at no more than 15% (or something like that). Songwriting is too precious and too valuable an art to not reward the songwriters who are still practicing it each year with no outside assistance. On the other hand, the nice thing is that should a song based on a sample win a songwriting Grammy, the writers of that sample who contributed to the success of the new song that will also be recognized for their contribution.
Previously, samples or interpolations were allowed in only Best Rep Song since that genre is so reliant on samples. Now, the permission extends to Song of the Year, Best Rock Song, Best R&B Song, Best Country Song, Best Gospel Song, Best Contemporary Christian Music Song, Best American Roots Song, and Best Song Written for Visual Media.
Among the other changes:
*Best American Roots Performance category has been added
*The Dance/Electronica field and category have been renamed Dance/Electronic
*Best Pop Instrumental Album has been renamed Best Pop Contemporary Instrumental Album
*Best Classical Vocal Solo (album or tracks) becomes the album-only Best Classical Solo Vocal Album
*The guideline for Best Alternative Music Album has been refined as “recordings that take as a starting point any existing musical genre or combination of genres and expand and redefine the boundaries of those genres.” Here’s another place where I disagree with the Academy. I would have totally renamed this category. The word “Alternative” is too closely associated with the alternative radio format, when, if you look at the nominees from past years, that is not what this category is about. Calling the Grammy category “Alternative” only causes unnecessary confusion, especially given, as the Grammy guidelines state, “though there may be considerable overlap with the Alternative radio format, this category is not intended to mirror it.” This was their chance and they didn’t take it…
I would have also made a significant change in the Best New Artist category: To be eligible now, an artist must have released at least one, but not more than three, albums. In the age of mix tapes and long lasting singles, it seems unwise that the rule hasn’t been switched to eliminate the album criteria. For example, Bruno Mars didn’t qualify for Best New Artist in 2010 (the awards were presented in February 2011) because his first album, “Doo Wop and Hooligans,” came out after the Sept. 30, 2010 cut off, despite his already blowing up at radio from his appearance on B.o.B.’s “Beautiful Girls” and his own hit, “Just The Way You Are,” and showing signs of developing into the tremendous talent he’s become. By the next year, it was too late to nominate him for Best New Artist because he’d won for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for “Just The Way You Are.” When people look back at the Best New Artist nominees and see he didn’t make it (Lady Gaga was also never eligible for a technicality that has sense been amended), the Grammys will look foolish. Time to made another amendment.