Grammys 2015: 'Music's' biggest night'? That's rich

Randall Roberts
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
What will be missing on 'music's biggest night'? Proper respect to lesser known yet equally deserving artists

When 80-year-old Grammy nominee Alice Gerrard got the call at her North Carolina home that her record was nominated for folk album, "My first thought was, 'Oh, my God, what a pain," she said, laughing.

Honored for her under-appreciated "Follow the Music," Gerrard had never been nominated despite being responsible for a handful of classic folk albums, most importantly those in collaboration with the late Hazel Dickens, and being a mainstay on the folk scene for more than 50 years.

After her record label's owner, Josh Rosenthal of Tompkins Square, explained that she was one of only five, though, Gerrard's enthusiasm rose. "It was very exciting — balanced with, like, 'Oh, now I have to pack a suitcase, get a dog sitter, get on the plane, go through security.' But I'm honored and thrilled to be nominated."

FULL COVERAGE: Grammy Awards 2015

Despite being billed as "music's biggest night,' the prime-time Grammy Awards telecast, though, won't be saluting Gerrard's admirable achievement: spending her entire creative life exploring, sharing and making music. Rather, the cameras will focus on spritely nominees including Iggy Azalea, Ariana Grande, Pharrell, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Beck, Meghan Trainor and Sam Smith.

Aside from the requisite Tony Bennett appearance (with Lady Gaga, of course), elders and outcasts will be eclipsed by the ubiquitous 2014 boldfaced names guaranteed yet even more prime-time screen time Sunday.

So it goes for commercial music's prom queens and kings, the mostly deserving, occasionally not royalty who will glide across the red carpet, shimmering while banking social media followers amid relentless online chatter. In the process, these winners will earn even more money from making music in 2015 — no small feat in a post-YouTube, post-Spotify era in which songs are monetized by fractions of cents.

PHOTOS: Grammys 2015 top nominees 

While the teasers, billboards, smartphone apps and mainstream media deliver Photoshopped face time to the prettiest, most handsome and charismatic of this "biggest night," absent again will be proper respect and representation to lesser knowns. This unsung event occurs Sunday afternoon at the Los Angeles Convention Center and is a much more representative mark of the year in music.

During the three-hour prime-time broadcast, 10 major awards will be delivered in front of millions. By contrast, the rushed daytime three hours will move with little fanfare, 73 awards handed out to a crowd of about 3,500 and streamed online.

To extend the high school metaphor, those making music away from the Grammy quarterbacks and cheerleaders are equally remarkable creators, yet their kudos arrive not on prom night but during study hall. You know, the EDM geeks such as Clean Bandit, Basement Jaxx and Aphex Twin, the studious classical aesthetes (John Luther Adams, Anna Clynne), metalheads (Mastodon, Motorhead), rapheads (Common, Schoolboy Q, I Love Makonnen), trad-rockers (Black Keys, Jack White, Tom Petty), blues slingers (Bobby Rush, the late Johnny Winter) and rural traditionalists like Sturgill Simpson, Lee Ann Womack and Charlie Musselwhite.

This lesser attention suggests a certain disinterest by the Recording Academy in properly documenting the miraculous body of music hidden beneath the glitter of prime time. Though less a deliberate diminishment than a failure in communication, this oversight nonetheless does a disservice to America's understanding of contemporary music's breadth.

PHOTOS: Guide to the 2015 Grammy Awards

The scarcity of info on undercard artists — also known to major label executives as "competition" — on both the Grammy website and its Grammy smartphone app is a perfect illustration: Search on "Beyonce" and a load of data arrives. Do the same on Grammy-winning Los Angeles group Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea, once again nominated in the regional Mexican music album (including tejano) category, and nothing comes up. You wouldn't know, for example, that the group first earned fame at Disneyland, that founder Shea is a perennial powerhouse in her field or that she successfully breached a generations-old gender gap in mariachi music.

Yes, in a ratings-dominated television market within a country obsessed with celebrity, the chase for numbers dictates decisions be made. Still, the collateral damage is an annual all-or-nothing event more about marketing music's wealthiest few than honoring the best of the best.

This is especially true when it's just as easy to access new work by nominees such as the late Jesse Winchester (nominated for folk album and American roots song), Antonique Smith (traditional R&B performance), Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings (R&B album) or New Age nominees Silvia Nakkach & David Darling as it is to hear the new Kanye West-Paul McCartney-Rihanna or Taylor Swift track.

They're all in the trenches making and celebrating music on the cheap, stringing together gigs, researching historical liner notes, working on studio acoustics before a session, pouring through archives and looking for reissue material. You know, doing God and/or Music's work. Just breaking even is some sort of victory.

Gerrard's "Follow the Music," for example, cost a few thousand dollars to record. The notion of a Grammy nod during its creation was as distant a notion as winning a Nobel Prize. It was recorded by one of her former Duke University students, Michael Taylor (aka Hiss Golden Messenger), in a farmhouse studio outside Durham, N.C.

Clean Bandit, an English quartet formed at Cambridge University, is nominated in the dance recording category for the smash "Rather Be." Its members could be Gerrard's (plugged-in, tech-savvy) great grandchildren, and they make a brand of EDM-classical fusion that defies easy categorization.

Though the track hasn't gotten many stateside commercial radio spins and didn't land on many critics' best of 2014 lists, its video has accrued an astounding 220 million YouTube views. The success has landed Clean Bandit a slot at Coachella because of a combination of the track's magnetism and the accompanying music video's strange four-minute narrative.

A likely Grammy nod? Not part of any conversation, member Milan Neil Amin-Smith said. "When we released this, we'd never had a top 10 hit in the U.K., and it was so far from our minds to even — that whole world of awards and big-selling songs, it just wasn't on our radar."

But then something surprising happened: The video, created as the group was making the track, took hold, and the eyeballs started multiplying. Despite the success, the virality was an abstraction to the group until a few months later.

"We had no actual concrete evidence that people cared about the song," said Amin-Smith. "It wasn't until we started to perform again and whole crowds suddenly know all the words to this song that we never really put out there before. That was quite the amazing feeling. Even now, when we play it live you finally understand what it means to people." Their Grammy nomination, while an honor, pales in comparison.

That exuberant spirit, that connection to the universal beat that drives all music everywhere regardless of sonics, demographic or hit potential may be the Grammy's core mission, but you can't tell that from the prime-time telecast.

GRAMMYS 2015: Complete list | Ballot | Top nominees | Guide | Timeline

Looking at the performance roster, the night may as well be called music's richest night, as it will feature performers including Kanye West, Beyoncé, Rihanna, AC/DC (not even nominated), Madonna (ditto), Paul McCartney (ditto), Sam Smith and Katy Perry. All among the most successful contemporary musicians in the Western world, they'll add to their fortunes come Monday morning.

For her part, Gerrard is flying in for "music's biggest day" with her daughter and grandson to learn whether she'll get a trophy for "Follow the Music." Named after a song on the album, the title's meaning embodies a philosophy that's steered her throughout her life.

"It's a song that says, 'If you follow the music, your music, it will guide you to where you want to be.' And I feel like music has always been a touchstone in my life. It's one of the things that guides me, and that has been important to me down through the years. It's always been music, whether it's been documenting traditional musicians, or starting a music magazine, or playing music or writing songs, or teaching it — it's always been music."

They'll be visiting a cousin while they're here, nothing too crazy. "We're going to go out to eat on Friday night, and I'll probably see a couple friends," she said. "But, you know, it costs a lot of money to go to that thing. Jeez. And it's not like they're paying you to go."

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