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POP EYE | Pop Eye

Some of Grammys' 'New' Artists Come With Lots of Mileage

November 29, 1998|STEVE HOCHMAN

Picture this lineup of nominees for the best new artist Grammy Award:

* Lucinda Williams, a critically prized country-folk artist who made her first album in 1979 and has previously won a Grammy as a songwriter.

* Lauryn Hill, one of today's most popular and respected artists, who as a member of the Fugees won two Grammys two years ago and was also nominated as best new artist that year.

* Massive Attack, the English electronic trio with three acclaimed and influential albums to its name.

* Plus maybe Donal Lunny, one of the leading forces in contemporary Irish folk music since the early '70s, or Leo Nocentelli, a guitarist whose legacy in New Orleans funk goes back into the '60s.

Um, we did say best new artist, didn't we?

All of those acts have been deemed eligible in that category this year--ironically, by the screening committee that was instituted last year to add more credibility to the award. Hill actually stands a strong chance of winning, with Williams having an outside chance for a nomination. The others are very long shots, but still could siphon some votes from candidates who are truly new artists--with such acts as Natalie Imbruglia, 'N Sync, Canibus, Ozomatli, Sean Lennon, Rufus Wainwright and Black-Eyed Peas among the popular and/or respected acts up for consideration.

Under old rules, new artists were defined as ones who released their first albums in the year of eligibility. That eliminated artists whose path to recognition was gradual or who started on an indie level--Whitney Houston and Nirvana, for example.

The eligibility rule was broadened last year to include "a new artist who releases, during the eligibility year, the first recording [album or single] which establishes the public identity of that artist." That elasticity paid off quickly, with Paula Cole, who had released a lesser-known album several years before 1996's "This Fire," winning the award. But this year's crop seems to stretch things a bit far.

That is a price of progress, says Mike Greene, president of the Grammy-sponsoring National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.

"There was a lot of discussion [by the committee] about Lucinda and Lauryn," Greene says. "With Lucinda, obviously, it was because she's been around for a while. And with Lauryn, the question concerned whether her name and identity was out there with enough of a profile as a member of the Fugees. The votes on both were pretty resounding that if we're going to err, let's err on the side of the artist."

Mark Williams, partner in the Geffen-distributed label Outpost Recordings, benefits from the new rules in that Days of the New, a band on his roster, is eligible this year despite a debut album that was released before the eligibility period. But he's concerned that overall the process lacks consistency.

"I think it's a noble effort to err on the side of artists," says Williams. "But is it a level playing field--a true debut of merit versus someone who's been around for years?"

To many in the business, this is another case of the Grammys--no matter how well-meaning--fumbling the ball.

Says Cheryl Botchick, music editor of the new-music publication CMJ Weekly, "It looks like they don't know what the category is about, and that they're making up the rules as they go along."

NO TV AMNESTY: The Amnesty International concert being held Dec. 10 in Paris--with artists including Peter Gabriel and Radiohead celebrating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights--is one of the biggest cause-oriented pop events since 1985's Live Aid. But unlike Live Aid, it won't be carried live on TV. In fact, it will only be televised several months later as a pay-per-view special, and then in drastically edited form. Even on radio it will only be offered as an edited, four-hour event, also to be aired sometime next year.

"It's a different time now," says Richard Flanzer, president of AtlanticPacific Music, the firm producing both the TV and radio specials. "Logistically it's not practical to air the whole thing live. There will be plenty of live coverage of it as a news event that's the finale of a weeklong marking of the anniversary."

A spokeswoman for the event said that it was offered to various TV outlets, including MTV, which carried Live Aid, but that there were no takers willing to mount what would be a costly production.

RADIO DAZE: The matter of permission and royalties surrounding the production of "The Untitled Radiohead Project," a play composed entirely of lyrics from Radiohead songs and running now at the small Hollywood Court Theatre, came to a head last week with representatives of the band and its music publisher momentarily threatening to shut the production down.

But given the small and charitable nature of the event--it's being done under the auspices of the local arts collective Slant, with all proceeds going to its fund to help needy artists--the band agreed to let it play on. A statement from the band stresses that it has "no connection whatsoever" with the play and that the group was "upset that no attempt had been made" to gain permissions, but that "the play will be allowed to run, on the understanding that the proceeds are going to charity."

Play creator and director Dean Testerman says it will continue its Thursday-through-Saturday run as scheduled, closing Saturday, and then will embark on a North American tour, with European dates being arranged as well.

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