It’s been just over two weeks since the US music business’s biggest night, The Grammys, took place in New York City.
The subsequent period has been soundtracked by aggrieved voices making their annoyance felt over the event’s myriad failures.
The biggest of those failures – according to the chorus of disapproval which continues to tarnish the evening’s achievements – was the under-representation of women on stage at Madison Square Garden. Both in terms of who got to play on the night, and who took home silverware.
The missing persons act enforced on Lorde was particularly puzzling: she was reportedly the only Album Of The Year nominee not to be invited to perform her own song at the ceremony. This would imply that Jay-Z, who didn’t perform, turned down the chance to play – and the Recording Academy still overlooked the only female nominated in the category.
In the wake of this controversy, thoughts have begun to turn to the event’s long-standing machinery, and whether both the board and voting academy of The Grammys need a rethink, and a refresh.
Tangible change seemed in the air on February 1, when beleaguered Recording Academy boss Neil Portnow – still reeling from the blowback following his ill-judged “step up” comments – announced a special ‘task force’ was being deployed to radically shake-up his organization.
Portnow pledged that this special faction would “review every aspect of what we do… and identify where we can do more to overcome the explicit barriers and unconscious biases that impede female advancement in the music community”. He promised: “We will place ourselves under a microscope and tackle whatever truths are revealed.”
It’s taking a while to focus that microscope.
Eleven days later, and there’s been no announcement from the Academy as to who’ll be on this “task force” – nor what their remit will be.
That’s despite six of the most powerful women in the US music business directly putting themselves forward for service, while requesting that near-as immediate action be taken in order to “make inroads on the issues of inclusion and diversity”.
No wonder some industry insiders have started to question whether Portnow’s ‘task force’ is, in reality, mere “window dressing” on an embarrassing debacle for the Academy.
If Portnow and his trustees are looking for inspiration on how they can better handle this fiasco, and fast, they could do a lot worse than looking across the Pond.
Almost exactly two years ago, the BRIT Awards – the UK’s equivalent annual trophy fest to the Grammys – came under uncomfortable scrutiny for its own failure to properly reflect its audience and their tastes.
“Ged Doherty openly admitted that structural problems at the heart of the event’s voting committee had led to disagreeable omissions from the show’s finalists and victors.”
Following a string of winners whose key similarities weren’t lost on the watching public, criticism was rife, neatly encapsulated for the internet age by the #BRITsSoWhite hashtag pinging its way around Twitter.
Then, the organisers of the BRIT Awards, the BPI – the UK’s equivalent of the RIAA – did something rather unexpected. They held their hands up, and very clearly said mea culpa.
The week after the event, BPI Chairman Ged Doherty – a former boss of Sony Music in the UK – openly admitted that structural problems at the heart of the event’s voting committee had led to disagreeable omissions from the show’s finalists and victors.
In an open letter published in The Guardian, Doherty acknowledged widespread concern over “what some might characterise as a lack of diversity among the nominees, but which, for me, was more about the lack of recognition of the emerging music that is a huge part of British youth culture”.
As a result, Dohety said that the BPI was rigorously surveying the make-up of the BRITs’ 1,100-strong voting committee which, he suspected, was “largely white and with a bias towards older men”.
And then he delivered something even more unexpected: a practical, quantifiable objective to help mitigate against the chances of #BRITsSoWhite ever happening again.
“Dohety said that the BPI was rigorously surveying the make-up of the BRITs’ 1,100-strong voting committee which, he suspected, was ‘largely white and with a bias towards older men’.”
Said Doherty: “We are making a further commitment by taking steps to ensure that, ahead of 2017, the voting academy will, wherever possible, have equal male-female representation and at least 15% BAME participation, in line with national trends, as well as being more diverse with regard to age and regionality, so that it can be more truly representative of modern British music.”
Kind of kicks Neil Portnow’s wishy-washy, non-committal “stick us under a microscope” spiel into a cocked hat, no?
Doherty’s big shake-up pissed some people off. Many people who had long contributed to the BRITs – and long contributed to the UK music industry – lost their vote as a consequence, and they weren’t happy about it.
It’s an immeasurably better event as a result.
This year’s BRIT Awards, taking place next Wednesday at London’s O2 Arena, makes a decent (if suitably mainstream-leaning) attempt to reflect the exact “British youth culture” which Doherty feared was being under-played back in 2016.
Nominees with links to the thriving UK urban music scene range from Stormzy (very much the man of the moment in Blighty) to Dave, Jorja Smith (pictured, main), J Hus, Stefflon Don and Loyle Carner.
By no means is this a sea change – but it’s certainly a noticeable, and refreshing, improvement.
It signals that the BRITs is interested in, and fans of, a new wave of talent. And it’s been spearheaded by people who recognised when that wasn’t the case – and were embarrassed by the fact.
In the week following the BRITs in 2016, Ged Doherty met personally with Stormzy to hear his concerns and get his advice on how to ensure the awards bash “more effectively celebrates diverse, breaking and established talent”.
Within nine days of the last gong being given out that year, the BPI had taken action – by making public, measurable guarantees as to how these issues were to be resolved.
It has been 15 days since the Grammys took place. There has been no such charter for change.
The silence is deafening.
The Recording Academy doesn’t just need to step up – it needs to hurry up, too.Music Business Worldwide