There was a time when the Grammys were the biggest event of the year for the music business and besides the Oscars, they were the biggest event in show business. For major labels it could literally make or break your year. Especially if the the acts that won had not yet enjoyed tremendous commercial success up to that point. For examaple, Bonnie Raitt’s “Nick of Time” came out of nowhere to win 3 Grammys including Best Album in 1989. Raitt, who had not been exceedingly successful from a commercial standpoint prior to 1989, went onto sell over 5 million copies of this record. As a result she has earned royalty status in the music world. Raitt was always a terrific artist, but the Grammy awards added credibility to her career and exposed her to more people than ever. She was propelled her to superstar status. Can that still happen?
The music business is always trying to find the next big thing. At present there is no real hope in sight. The market has become so diffuse and unfocused it is difficult to believe that even if the next “game changing” artist came along, they would be identified as such. The Grammy voters do not have a great track record for recognizing greatness in its early stages. One of the more historic screw-ups occurred in February of 1979, when Taste of Honey won Best New Artist on their strength of their chart-topping single “Boogie,Oogie Oogie. Unfortunately the Grammy voters failed to pick Elvis Costello over Taste of Honey that year. TOH was essentially history two years later, while Elvis is still going very strong. In 1980, Christopher Cross won 5 Grammys, even topping Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel, a litle album called “The Wall” and Barbra Streisand for Best Album that year. Cross’s best recorded moment came with the theme from “Arthur”, which was written by the legendary team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David (probably not related to Larry). In 1966 “Winchester Cathedral” beat out “Eleanor Rigby”, “Good Vibrations”, “Last Train to Clarksville”, “Cherish” and “Monday, Monday” for best record. Who can forget Jethro Tull’s 1988 win in the Best Metal Performance category over Metallica. Huh? My favorite story is about Men At Work. I was at Columbia when we broke the band. They won Best New Artist in 1983 ahead of The Stray Cats, Jennifer Holliday and Asia. When lead singer Colin Hay gave his speech, he said “We are The Men, we will see you again”. He was wrong.
Winning a Grammy was so important that at one point a major label actually recorded an album using staff members as the artists. By appearing on the album and having the album released, each employee received a Grammy ballot next year. I just can’t imagine anyone going to those extremes to win an award this year. Last year’s broadcast was highlighted by Mumford & Sons, who probably benefited most in sales from the show. Their performance of “The Cave” moved the single from #108 on Itunes to #8. Still the actual sales numbers paled in comparison to past years, where winning albums or great performances could double the sales of an album overnight.
The Grammys is usually a pretty bad TV show. There have been some great moments in the past, but also some terrible ones. I remember seeing the Jonas Brothers (could their be whiter guys on the planet?) onstage with Stevie Wonder. One of the Joni got pretty much in Stevie’s face while they were singing “Superstition”. All I can remember thinking was that I was glad that Stevie couldn’t see this.
The problem is, where are the real superstars. This year’s show is loaded with contemporary names as well as iconic artists. But are there real superstars amongst the younger acts, or merely the best of what is around. Springsteen and the E Street Band, McCartney, Diana Krall, The Beach Boys, Bonnie Raitt and Tony Bennett have their places in history secured. Adele, maybe the only representative of the younger folks, that will likely be around in ten years. She will share the stage with Kelly Clarkson, Coldplay, Katy Perry, Maroon 5, Bruno Mars, Foster the People, Maroon 5, Chris Brown and Rhianna among others. The biggest story here is whether or not this represents some sort of reconciliation between Brown and Rhianna. It is not that these artists are not great. But can they get through to the masses and gain the level of success that their predecessors have realized? They have the internet, and lots of media outlets. But there are so many things assaulting the senses of the public, that it is difficult to be anything but a niche artist. There was a time when if you had a #1 song, everyone knew it. Now, there are so many #1 songs, in so many genres that it takes a gigantic hit to span all the various demos. There is no video channel to hammer home the song 40 times a day. Radio stations don’t have the impact they once did. What will it take for Coldplay, Kelly Clarkson and Bruno Mars to make into the next decade? Even if they are the real deal, will we really be able to see enough of them or will we be busy doing other things? The public’s attention is so divided these days it makes it tougher, not easier to become a real icon. More often than ever before, they are here today and gone this afternoon.
So, in this media infested world that we live in, are the Grammys as important as they once were. No way. Is music as important as it once was? It is more important to more people than it ever has been. But, thanks to technology each person can live in their own world. If you like Mumford and Sons and bands like that, you can literally hear nothing but similar music and never hear the pop stuff. If you are a Top 40 person, you may never hear the biggest rock bands of the day, because they don’t cross over to pop radio. So, everyone lives in their own little world. The pie is bigger than ever, but there slices are minute.