On Sunday, “music’s biggest night,” the 56th Grammy Awards, will be held in Los Angeles – no doubt with the customary level of humility and circumspection so characteristic of the music industry.
Commentators seem to have two main criticisms of the Grammys:
1) most of the awards go to the wrong artists, because …
2) the whole concoction is fixed from the start, geared more to towards recognising record sales than artistic excellence.
But there’s more to the Grammys than meets the eye.
There is no question that a lot of Grammys have gone to some pretty forgettable artists. The lists of beloved artists who either never won a Grammy, or lost to someone they really shouldn’t have, are indeed impressive and entertaining. It’s actually jaw-dropping to see how few of the albums installed in the canon as the “greatest of all-time” have even been nominated for an award, much less won one.
But it’s far too easy to fall into thinking this is a show that’s only capable on honouring those artists whose sales figures justify it. If that were the case, it would be a lot shorter and far less annoying.
Behind the pomp and self-importance, those who run the Grammys have long seen themselves as arbiters of musical taste and value. The Grammys are not only meant to sell music, but to sell the system that produces it.
Troubling times for industry
The Grammys were initiated by a small group of executives from the major record labels in 1957. The first awards show took place in 1958, sponsored by the National Academy for the Recording Arts and Sciences.
As with the Oscars and the Emmys before them, the Grammys were part of a much wider effort made by a large number of industrial associations in the two decades after the second world war to craft and impose what US labour historian Elizabeth Fones-Wolf called a “more conservative and consensual political climate”.
The captains of industry were facing a tide of labour militancy, increasing economic competition at home and abroad, and burgeoning civil unrest. As Fones-Wolf shows, in her sterling book Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-60:
important segments of the business community responded to this economic and ideological challenge with an aggressive campaign to recast to political economy of America.
She explains that, behind the more obvious fights over politics and policy was a struggle “to reshape the ideas, images, and attitudes through which Americans understood the world”.
Those who saw themselves as the custodians of the future were fighting a war against their own workers and for the minds and hearts of the public.
The music industry was by no means exempt from these forces. It also faced extensive labour militancy and a public – especially younger people – that was turning to other sources of pleasure and entertainment.
At about the same time as the Grammys were created, the music industry was facing one its more serious periodic insurgencies from new forms of music made by independent entrepreneurs. The emergence of musical styles such as rock and roll did more than threaten the social norms of the time. The small record labels and independent radio stations that came with these new forms of music also threatened the infrastructure of the post-war music industry.
Further, there were many other new forms of music emerging from places that executives in New York and Los Angeles thought were a little out of the way, such as Memphis, New Orleans, Detroit or Chicago.
Rhythm and blues, soul, Motown and new and inventive forms of jazz with odd names such as bebop were thriving as well. Those forms of music didn’t evolve in a vacuum. They had small record labels to produce them, new radio stations to promote them and new venues to host their live shows. There was a whole infrastructure rising up that was expanding rapidly as recording technology got better and cheaper.
Those who created the Grammys said they wanted to “elevate the tone” and “raise the standard” of excellence in popular culture. But behind the soothing rhetoric there was a grim battle for industrial supremacy. By creating the Grammys, the major record labels were reacting to the perceived vulnerability of their economic dominance over the production and sale of music. A dominance that continues to this day.
Selling the system
So, a few things to keep in mind if you choose to pay attention to the Grammys this year. We are talking about a product – music – that is pervasive and easily replaced, the appeal of which is mercurial and elusive.
That makes the work of selling music extremely important to those in the industry. The Grammys still possess that oddly contradictory form of elite paternalism that used to be a genuine feature of capitalism in the era in which they were founded.
While this lavish spectacle may seem a little unnecessary to most of us, it remains a very valuable educational guide to those who produce it, labouring as they are under the pretension that we need to be told what counts as the best music of our time.