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The Troubles With Grammy : Wonder how 'The 3 Tenors' made the cut over R.E.M. and Neil Young? Now even pop-biz insiders are going public with complaints.

February 26, 1995|Chuck Philips | Chuck Philips writes about the pop music industry for Calendar.

Little did Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti know when they took the stage at Dodger Stadium last summer that they would end up central figures in an escalating debate over the credibility of the Grammy Awards.

Dumbfounded pop fans and countless critics haven't been alone through the years in ridiculing the Grammys for favoring mainstream bestsellers over cutting-edge innovators.

Top record company executives, too, have often shaken their heads over the balloting, but they've done it privately--fearful perhaps that public outbursts would damage the image of the Grammys, whose awards have been a strong commercial boost for recordings.

The criticisms are private no longer.

In a year in which "The 3 Tenors in Concert 1994"--a work of great spectacle but minor substance--and a pedestrian Tony Bennett collection have been nominated over widely acclaimed works by Hole, Neil Young, R.E.M. and Nine Inch Nails, the executives are publicly urging reforms in the voting system.

And the complaints aren't just from disgruntled companies whose artists failed to get nominations for best album or best record. The frustrated include the heads of the companies that released "3 Tenors" and Bennett's "MTV Unplugged" album.

"A lot of us are very disappointed these days with how music gets nominated," says Doug Morris, chairman of Warner Music Group U.S., which released "3 Tenors." "We believe the voting process is in serious need of review."

Thomas D. Mottola, president and chief operating officer of Sony Music Entertainment, which released the Bennett album, agrees: "Because of the fragmentation and new genres of music, particularly in the last number of years, the current Grammy categories do not at all reflect what is going on in music today."

Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, dismisses much of the criticism as the grumblings of profit-driven executives who would like to twist the Grammys to their own commercial advantage.

"The Grammy Award is not a popularity contest," says Greene, whose academy sponsors the annual competition. "It was conceived as an award to honor excellence, and it's given to artists and technical people by their peers. And from time to time that means it will be out of step with what sells or what is popular."

Grammy detractors argue that Greene is too defensive when it comes to evaluating what they consider a cumbersome voting process, thereby standing in the way of meaningful change that would allow the process to better reflect the most creative impulses in the recording industry.

Some executives are so upset over the situation that they've threatened privately to withdraw support from future Grammy events, which could mean a loss of revenue for the academy. At present, companies are asked to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to underwrite Grammy Host Committee activities and pay as much as $950 for prime tickets for the 5,000-seat show.

Representatives for the biggest recording conglomerates have even begun talks with a major network in hopes of launching their own awards show.

"The Grammys clearly do not reflect excellence with regard to the music that is released each year," says entertainment mogul David Geffen. "It's getting to the point where few people in the music business take them seriously. And if they keep it up, at the rate they're going, it won't be long before they're considered completely irrelevant."

*

No one denies that the Grammys have been a boon for the record industry. Not only are the awards good for artists' egos, but they also sell albums.

The impact of a Grammy win can mean millions of dollars in new sales--often rejuvenating interest in recordings seemingly well past their sales peaks. Albums by Bonnie Raitt, Natalie Cole, Eric Clapton and R.E.M. posted sales gains up to 80% after recent telecasts.

Academy members have had no trouble in recognizing excellence in the mainstream. The winners through the years have included some of the most respected names in contemporary pop: from Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand to Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon.

The Grammys are not without defenders.

"The pundits whine every year about which critics' darlings get overlooked, but I think the Grammys do a lot to push the music industry to the forefront in a very positive way," says Charles Koppelman, chairman and chief executive officer of EMI Records Group North America. "A huge portion of the silent majority of the buying public still wait every year for that Grammy validation before they go out and make a purchase."

Says MCA Music Entertainment Group Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Al Teller: "The good news is that the Grammys focus public attention on the music in a powerful way. The bad news is that there are troubles with the composition of the voting membership and it threatens to marginalize the value of the entire award process."

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