The Music Industry Doesn't Understand Music; It Never Did
Every year, whether it's the Oscars, the Video Game Awards, or the Nobel Prize for that matter, we're subjected to infuriated individuals venting at the injustice of the proceedings. And, sometimes, they make a good point. Views for videos ranting about who got robbed are higher than the viewership for most award ceremonies. As long as humans have been judging art, they've been screwing it up.
No medium is quite so noteworthy for its glaring omissions or lack of self-awareness as the music world. Imagine a bakery run by a guy with no functioning taste buds. Now imagine Michelin puts that guy in charge of deciding which restaurant gets the stars, and you've got some idea how the Grammys operate. The award show is hand-selected, vetted, and voted on by the record labels and corporate insiders every year, handed out at the appropriately corporate-sounding Staples Center in LA. The business never really understood burgeoning trends or youth culture, but damn if it didn't coast for a good 30 years on goodwill before anyone noticed.
The more cutting-edge and unclassifiable the music, the more inscrutable it is to non-fans. 20 years after the New York Dolls established the punk genre; the music biz still hadn't figured out what the hell punk was even after milking every last dime out of the fad then driving it underground, as evidenced by them slapping the designation on an arbitrarily assembled new wave/pop/dance compilation. Music nerds, take a deep breath and try not to throw up in your mouth:
Any self-respecting punk would have shoplifted it anyway.
The utter ignorance of classifying the Thompson Twins as "punk" wasn't a one-time clerical error by a suburban mom in Warner Brother's marketing department or a mistake by some dinosaur in a suit running CBS Records. No, this kind of perplexing out-of-touch attitude is pervasive -- Exhibit B, the 1989 Grammys, which marked the worst award show misjudgment of all time. Keeping up with what the kids were hip to, the newly inaugurated Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Performance award was first handed out in 1989 to Jethro Tull.
A few issues with this. As any music aficionado will immediately notice, Jethro Tull isn't a metal band. (As a reminder, when you Google Jethro Tull, make sure you click on the correct Wikipedia entry, not the page for the guy who invented farm equipment.) While you could argue that their sound had changed since the '60s, the British prog-rock band were synth jazz or experimental folk.
Our guess is that the organizers lumped them into the category to fill out the new category quota, and no one in charge could rattle off more than one or two legit metal bands. That or the Grammy people still thought metal was an anti-social satanic conspiracy and were terrified of giving them more press. Evidently, not a lot of Bathory or Ministry fans on the Beverly Hills-area voting roll when they were deciding the Grammy awards that afternoon. Megadeth was snubbed, too, presumably for encouraging poor spelling. How hard can it be to find metal bands? In the situation any record store patron got confused, Pantera literally stamped their genre on their album cover in bright red, legible, non-Gothic typeface.
The second oversight? Jethro Tull's competition that night was Metallica. Not later-period, short-haired Metallica, but the iconic thrash metal gods in their peak years. Though presenter Alice Cooper tried to keep the proceedings professional, the embarrassment on Lita Ford's face was unmistakable as she learned Iggy Pop, AC/DC, and Jane's Addiction were also overlooked in favor of a washed-up hippie with a flute. The crowd (those in attendance who realized the monumental scale of the upset that had just occurred) fell silent for minutes before laughing, under the impression that Alice Cooper was pulling another practical joke in style with his wacky persona and shocking stage antics:
Guillotines and killing chickens doesn't seem so horrifying in comparison, now does it?
That same award show Will Smith won for best rap song over more controversial bands NWA and Public Enemy; neither one nominated despite releasing socially relevant, generation-shaping, genre-defining albums that still hold up. The Grammy people saved public humiliation of going with the safest, lamest choice by refusing to televise that particular award altogether. This kind of terrible judgment and lack of respect caused a backlash that led to them trying to fix the issue. And that sure wasn't the first time they bungled a major award. The Grammys were always terrible at differentiating fads from new genres. The first metal album award wasn't handed out until the metal genre was already petering out. Rap didn't get its own dedicated Best Album category until the mid-'90s, the year Tupac died. Great timing, guys.
12 years before the Jethro Tull debacle, the one-hit-wonder Starland Vocal Band won the Best New Artist prize beating out a bunch of incredible bands launching debut albums in 1976 like Heart, Tom Petty, Blondie, Billy Ocean, The Runaways, and The Ramones. The truly mortifying part was that none of those bands or performers were even nominated. Boston was, but multiple charting singles couldn't help them from losing to the blandest, least innovative choice.
Should you think we're being too mean to the Grammy people: Macklemore has more Grammy awards to his name than Snoop Dogg. Milli Vanilli has returned more Grammys than Run DMC has won. Queen, The Who, Diana Ross? Yup, empty trophy cases. It sort of makes sense. What better place to celebrate music more boring than a manila folder than inside of an arena named after a store that sells them? Considering the Grammys' reputation, we're lucky there isn't a Muzak category.
The situation is getting dire. A music publisher is supposed to be focused on finding new artists, anticipating and capitalizing on new trends. As streaming (and pirating) became the norm, labels downsized A &R departments, aka the talent scouts. Why bother trying to get ahead of trends and scour dingy underground clubs when you can just look at the trending list on social media sites? Instead of figuring out a way to get better, they are turning into the skid and doing the next best thing, buying up all the back catalogs of old artists that they can get their hands on. Record labels are now slobbering at the chance to own a piece of five-decades-old Fleetwood Mac whose most culturally relevant moment in the last 30 years was the Todd Howard meme.
You can still get lucky and get a viral video on YouTube, TikTok, or something to land a contract, but the odds are against you. Not surprisingly, the very concept of bands is starting to die out. Long story short, unless you're a meme, your music career is screwed in 2021.
Might we propose, for the sake of everyone's sanity, that we simply stop caring about award shows-- all of them. Just sit back and view them with cold detachment, realizing none of this matters. None of the millionaires in charge know what they are doing or care. Much like the Oscars, all these shows are industry hype fests where everyone is too high on coke, out-of-touch, or jaded to take art or voting seriously. Neither should we. It was never really about memorializing art that would stand the test of time. Caring about who wins will only drive you crazy in the long run. Just ask Kanye.
Top Image: Elektra Records