Al Walser, a surprise nominee for a best dance recording Grammy, says he… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)
Dressed in a black leather punk jacket, Al Walser leans conspiratorially across a glass table in a Mid-Wilshire office suite. It's stacked with paperwork, golf clubs and a placard deeming the space an Honorary Consulate of the Principality of Liechtenstein. This is the home of Cut the Bull Entertainment, the production, management and marketing firm of this year's most improbable Grammy nominee.
"Have you read that book 'The Mouse That Roared'?" asks the aspiring music mogul from Liechtenstein. "It's about a tiny European nation who declares war on the U.S. to rebuild their country. And they win."
With no major record label backing him — but plenty of photos of himself posing with famous faces, including Mariah Carey, Snoop Dogg and even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — Walser waged a campaign through social media and old-fashioned handshaking to earn enough votes for a Grammy nomination in the best dance recording category for his single, "I Can't Live Without You."
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"I'm not doing anything that movie studios don't do at Oscar time," Walser says. "I'm not going to throw money around, but I have [Grammy voters] laser-targeted."
Walser was able to lobby Grammy voters directly as a member of Grammy365, a networking group for the Recording Academy that hosts year-round events. He was also an active participant on the 365 website, where his frequent posts reached more than 4,100 members who friended him.
"[I] would be more than so honored to have your vote," he wrote in one dispatch. "I put my heart and soul in to the production."
Walser was confident that the big hooks of "I Can't Live Without You" could compete with EDM (electronic dance music) superstars Calvin Harris, Skrillex, Avicii and Swedish House Mafia — his fellow dance recording nominees — if voters only gave it a chance.
He was at home in the bedroom of his Encino condo on the night the Grammy nominations were announced. When he spotted his name on the list of nominees, he had to refresh the Grammy site three times before he believed the news.
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Surrounded by DJ equipment, his son's artwork and the white keytar he plays in the self-produced video for "I Can't Live Without You," Walser cried. "I called to my wife, and my 4-year-old was jumping around with me."
But among EDM insiders, Walser's nomination was seen as a cosmic joke. "This song got nominated for Best Dance Single @TheGrammys? Pls tell me this is Borat," tweeted dance producer Morgan Page.
"The song's clunky rock / trance fusion and low-budget video make Rebecca Black's 'Friday' sound and look cutting-edge in comparison," wrote Spin magazine's Philip Sherburne, "and a video of Walser performing looks like something 'Saturday Night Live' might come up with if it revived 'Sprockets' for the EDM era."
"From our vantage showcasing emerging talent in dance music, and booking DJ shows week in and week out, I can safely say that until the nomination came out I had never heard of Al Walser," said Damian Murphy of the influential electronic music club Avalon Hollywood.
A booker at downtown Los Angeles' the Vault confirmed that Walser had performed at that nightclub. But Erika Raney of the L.A. dance-music promoter Insomniac, with a 20-year history of producing EDM shows and events, including Electric Daisy Carnival, said, "We have never heard of nor have we booked this person to perform."
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Bloggers initially suspected a hoax when it came out that Walser had lobbied for votes on the Grammy365 website.
But the Grammys' Bill Freimuth, vice president of awards at the Recording Academy, said Walser broke no rules and there are no suspicions of fraud.
"I think that people voted for him, that's how he won," said Freimuth, who affirms that Walser has been a voting member of the academy in good standing since 2008. "What he did was market himself aggressively."
There is precedent for obscure artists using boots-on-the-ground nomination tactics. Country fans were startled last year when the unknown Linda Chorney waged a meet-and-greet campaign and got a best Americana album Grammy nomination.
'A threat' to scene
This year's Walser nomination underscores EDM's uncomfortable place in the music establishment. Though the 2012 Grammy telecast included performances by EDM artists Deadmau5 and David Guetta, Walser's out-of-nowhere nomination is proof to some that dance music categories are still seen as marginal and even mysterious by many Grammy voters.
"I'm a threat to the EDM scene," Walser says in the Wilshire Boulevard office he shares with attorney Donald K. Wilson and Leodis C. Matthews, the honorary consul of Liechtenstein to the Western and Southwestern United States, and a longtime friend of Walser.