Grammys remain out of touch with the modern music industry

Nodding to the past in the present. Matt Sayles/AP

Given the group’s sonic ownership of last summer with Get Lucky, it seems apt that Daft Punk collaborators dominated last night’s Grammy Awards. They had a total of seven wins, including Album of the Year for Random Access Memories and Record of the Year for that ubiquitous single. But for all the evident popularity of the enigmatic French duo amongst younger audiences and the perennial hipness of collaborator Pharrell Williams, theirs was ultimately a victory for old school approaches to music.

The album was a loving homage to the funk, disco and soft rock music of the 1970s and 1980s. It was imbued with retro cool via the use of modular synths and the involvement of veteran musicians Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers. A highly visible (and audible) nod to the past in the present, Random Access Memories can be seen as an ideal representation of the contemporary music world as celebrated by the Grammys.

Criticism of the Grammys tend to fall into a few well established areas. Probably the most consistent is that the awards merely represent the self-congratulation of the corporate music industry and underline the essentially commercial nature of music-making and consumption. But this could hardly be otherwise. An academy devoted to recorded sound is an academy that implicitly celebrates the commodification of music as inaugurated by Edison’s invention of the phonograph and Berliner’s of the gramophone.

Those fans and artists who look for the artistic in music and who criticise the Grammys for celebrating commercialism conveniently overlook the fact that they too access music via commodified forms. Perhaps the problem with the Grammys is the sight of commodification writ large, a monstrous reflection of that part of art that we’d rather not acknowledge.

Another line of critique forms around the Grammys’ focus on essentially mainstream, established music making – music shaped by the industry for industry recognition. Here, the lack of acknowledgement for genuinely new music is seen as problematic, especially so in the supposedly fast-moving world of pop. Given the eligibility dates for awards (1 October 2012 to 30 September 2013 for the latest ceremony), the New Artist category can seem rather behind the times and music that flashes up between cut-off date and ceremony inevitably misses out.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the winners of this year’s New Artist award, were certainly new to the academy, but perhaps not new in pop terms; Macklemore has been releasing music for more than a decade. And Beyoncé might have been on fine form kicking off the main event with a performance alongside husband Jay-Z, but her latest self-titled album, released unexpectedly in December 2013, could not be considered for an award. Taylor Swift, also performing at this year’s awards, was nominated for an album released in late 2012.

Of course, there have to be cut-off points and Beyoncé and her record label know very well how these things work. There are prime times to strategise releases for Grammys, just as there are to capitalise on Christmas and other buying periods. But the time-lag only supports the suspicion of a rather slow-moving industry dragging out the happening in pop for longer than its audience might wish to allow.

Which brings us to perhaps the most fundamental criticism aimed at the Grammys. The industry module they recognise – that built up through the phonographic era of the 20th century – is one that is in the processing of being relegated to history. The changes that have taken place with the production, consumption and exchange of music in the internet age are not just about changes in attitude towards styles or genres of music; rather, they represent a seismic shift in the way in which people – especially, but not exclusively, young people – access music.

The Grammy, named after a nineteenth century invention, simply isn’t representative of the internet-driven manner in which music is now circulated and consumed. Maria Schneider – winner of the Contemporary Classical Composition award – used her acceptance speech to talk about the time spent creating take-down notices and fighting online music sharing. It was an emblematic moment that showed the tensions between old and new understandings of music consumption, and between creative artists and their audiences.

What all of this highlights is the way in which the Grammys showcase an essentially traditional, established world of music that either doesn’t feel the need to – or simply can’t – reflect the major challenges facing the industry. This is not an issue that those involved in film, theatre and television have had to deal with to the same extent, marking the Grammys as perhaps more out of touch than the Oscars, Tonys and Emmys.

But to make this point is also, arguably, to buy into the youth-oriented focus that has been placed on music – all genres of music – for more than half a century. Contemporary music’s indebtedness to tradition goes far beyond the recognition of “folk”, “country” or “traditional R&B” (all Grammy categories), as Led Zepplelin’s victory in the rock category proved conclusively. Perhaps instead we should see the Grammys as a space in which we witness musical worlds hardening into tradition.