x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Grammy Awards cuts spark outcry

The Grammy Awards face possible legal action from artists after an unprecedented 31 categories have been axed.

Bobby Sanabria has led a campaign calling for a national boycott against CBS.
Bobby Sanabria has led a campaign calling for a national boycott against CBS.

It has been called "the most blatant example of racism in the history of any arts organisation" and "a slap in the face to cultural and musical diversity".

Who would have thought a decision that scraps the Grammy Award for best Hawaiian music album would cause such an outcry?

But it's not just fans of that particular genre that are up in arms. An unprecedented 31 categories have been axed from next year's Grammys by the US organisation that runs the event, including best Latin jazz and best classical albums.

Because nearly three-quarters of the prizes set for the chop are dedicated to the music of racial or ethnic minorities, the New York-based Latin jazz drummer Bobby Sanabria has led a campaign calling for a national boycott against CBS, which broadcasts the Grammys each February. He has also urged his supporters to write letters of protest to companies sponsoring shows on the network.

The four-time Grammy nominee made the comments last week as he and hundreds of other artists moved forward with plans to file a class-action lawsuit against The Recording Academy, which manages the event. It claims the organisation's trustees "abdicated their fiduciary duty to safeguard the interests of all members of the academy".

The streamlining effort, which was announced in March, also struck a sour chord with Bill Cosby, Herbie Hancock and Paul Simon, among others.

"The message isn't about cutting," Neil Portnow, the president of the Recording Academy said, but "an overall guiding vision".

"It ups the game in terms of what it takes to receive a Grammy," he said. "We are talking about the most prestigious, coveted award and it should be a high bar in terms of the measurement of receiving that."

The Recording Academy claims the shake-up is not an attempt to make the Grammys more appealing to viewers of the televised ceremony, which has in the past been criticised for its length. The awards in 2011, which saw Lady Gaga arrive in a giant egg and Arcade Fire leaving with the album of the year award, received the best ratings in 10 years.

So why the change? Since its launch in 1959, the number of golden Gramophone statuettes handed out at the Grammys has swelled from 28 to 109. By contrast, the Oscars awards just 24 prizes.

Other discarded album categories include best zydeco or Cajun music, country instrumental performance, Native American music and children's spoken word. The changes mean that many artists contending for the remaining categories will now face stiffer competition. As well as subsuming the best contemporary R&B album into the surviving best R&B album, those who competed for best rap performance by a duo or group will now only be eligible for best rap performance. Meanwhile, seven Latin categories have been condensed to just four.

"In recent years, artists such as Mary J Blige had jumped back and forth from best contemporary to best R&B album without any rhyme or reason, as the contemporary field lacked an easy definition," wrote Allen J Schaben on the Los Angeles Times' music blog.

But across the pond, another music association has responded to the lack of exposure it believes its artists receive by launching its own awards ceremony. The UK's Association of Independent Music (AIM) said artists signed to small indie labels are regularly responsible for more than half of the 50 "best albums of the year" according to the UK music press, yet they are often omitted altogether from the high-profile televised industry awards shows, such as the Brit Awards.

Set to make their debut in November, the AIM Independent Music Awards could see the likes of The xx, Dizzee Rascal and Arctic Monkeys competing for a series of prizes - perhaps among them "best difficult second album". But as well as recognising recorded output, categories are also planned to reward the hardest-working band or artist and the best small label.

Alison Wenham, AIM's chairman and chief executive, told the BBC the awards are intended to "reflect the diversity and brilliance" of UK independent music. She added that the move was "not done as a response to anything the Brits have done" and that with tickets to the event selling for £70-£150 (Dh414-Dh887) compared with £1,900 at the Brits, "it won't be as glam or high profile".

But even the rise of smaller ceremonies (including America's Independent Music Awards, established in 2001) focused on under-represented artists and genres, is unlikely to quell the anger of the musicians for whom the prospect of winning a Grammy has just become much more remote.