On Wednesday night at the "Grammy Nominations Concert Live," the biggest stars were seated at two dozen tables that were covered with ivory tablecloths, sprinkled with gold confetti and anchored by a gleaming champagne bucket.
But if you looked closely, every one of those buckets was filled with a room-temperature bottle of Martinelli's apple cider instead of chilled Cristal.
It was a fitting choice. These are sobering times for the recording industry and for this fledgling broadcast franchise, which was still finding its feet in its second year.
Last year, producer Ken Ehrlich, a key figure in the Grammy broadcast since the early 1980s, had the inspiration to make a prime-time event out of the announcement of Grammy nominations; previously, the practice was to stage an early-morning news conference at the Recording Academy headquarters on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica. (During rehearsals Wednesday, Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas pointed out the unglamorous reality of that approach: "Musicians are not morning people.")
The show last year, though, didn't exactly wake up America. The one-hour broadcast on CBS finished fourth in its time slot (with an average of 7.1 million viewers) and, worse, lost 22% of the audience in its second half-hour.
Last year, the featured performers sang vintage music instead of their current hits; that was meant to dovetail with the opening of the nearby Grammy Museum but also to preempt any perception that those artists were getting an unfair advantage with academy voters.
This year, the Peas helped open the show at Club Nokia in downtown L.A. with their radio hit "I Gotta Feeling." As the Los Angeles pop collective rehearsed the song Wednesday afternoon, one of the interested observers was Jack Sussman, CBS vice president of specials, music and live events.
"Fans want to see the biggest artists performing their newest hits and we want a show that gets the ball rolling toward the Jan. 31 broadcast of the awards show," Sussman said.
Neil Portnow, the president and CEO of the Recording Academy, said acts such as the Peas are so ubiquitous that it's silly to think that one more performance would sway voters simply because it's presented on a national broadcast under the banner of the academy.
A more pressing concern, Portnow said, is the audience-interactive aspects of the Grammy approach these days. He said the Grammys had nodded to "American Idol" influences on the modern marketplace by including contests and viewer voting for some aspects of the show -- but not for determining the winners of Grammy trophies.
"A firewall is a good way to put it," Portnow said of the difference between the prestige awards and the viewer gimmicks.
Some people yearn for the days when the stars were the sole owners of the spotlight and album sales were still a viable currency.
Moments before the broadcast began Wednesday, Smokey Robinson greeted Ringo Starr with a warm embrace -- and then the smile left his face as he talked about the state of the industry. "I think shows like this are great because they give artists hope, but it's not the same as it used to be," said Robinson, a pivotal figure in the glory days of Motown. "It's a struggle now. The same thing has happened to the music industry as happened to so many other things."
He started to continue but the countdown to the show had begun, so, with a bottle of apple cider within reach, he turned toward the stage and waited for the music to start.