Little did Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti know when they took the stage at Dodger Stadium last summer that they would end up central figures in an escalating debate over the credibility of the Grammy Awards.
Dumbfounded pop fans and countless critics haven't been alone through the years in ridiculing the Grammys for favoring mainstream bestsellers over cutting-edge innovators.
Top record company executives, too, have often shaken their heads over the balloting, but they've done it privately--fearful perhaps that public outbursts would damage the image of the Grammys, whose awards have been a strong commercial boost for recordings.
The criticisms are private no longer.
In a year in which "The 3 Tenors in Concert 1994"--a work of great spectacle but minor substance--and a pedestrian Tony Bennett collection have been nominated over widely acclaimed works by Hole, Neil Young, R.E.M. and Nine Inch Nails, the executives are publicly urging reforms in the voting system.
And the complaints aren't just from disgruntled companies whose artists failed to get nominations for best album or best record. The frustrated include the heads of the companies that released "3 Tenors" and Bennett's "MTV Unplugged" album.
"A lot of us are very disappointed these days with how music gets nominated," says Doug Morris, chairman of Warner Music Group U.S., which released "3 Tenors." "We believe the voting process is in serious need of review."
Thomas D. Mottola, president and chief operating officer of Sony Music Entertainment, which released the Bennett album, agrees: "Because of the fragmentation and new genres of music, particularly in the last number of years, the current Grammy categories do not at all reflect what is going on in music today."
Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, dismisses much of the criticism as the grumblings of profit-driven executives who would like to twist the Grammys to their own commercial advantage.
"The Grammy Award is not a popularity contest," says Greene, whose academy sponsors the annual competition. "It was conceived as an award to honor excellence, and it's given to artists and technical people by their peers. And from time to time that means it will be out of step with what sells or what is popular."
Grammy detractors argue that Greene is too defensive when it comes to evaluating what they consider a cumbersome voting process, thereby standing in the way of meaningful change that would allow the process to better reflect the most creative impulses in the recording industry.
Some executives are so upset over the situation that they've threatened privately to withdraw support from future Grammy events, which could mean a loss of revenue for the academy. At present, companies are asked to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to underwrite Grammy Host Committee activities and pay as much as $950 for prime tickets for the 5,000-seat show.
Representatives for the biggest recording conglomerates have even begun talks with a major network in hopes of launching their own awards show.
"The Grammys clearly do not reflect excellence with regard to the music that is released each year," says entertainment mogul David Geffen. "It's getting to the point where few people in the music business take them seriously. And if they keep it up, at the rate they're going, it won't be long before they're considered completely irrelevant."
No one denies that the Grammys have been a boon for the record industry. Not only are the awards good for artists' egos, but they also sell albums.
The impact of a Grammy win can mean millions of dollars in new sales--often rejuvenating interest in recordings seemingly well past their sales peaks. Albums by Bonnie Raitt, Natalie Cole, Eric Clapton and R.E.M. posted sales gains up to 80% after recent telecasts.
Academy members have had no trouble in recognizing excellence in the mainstream. The winners through the years have included some of the most respected names in contemporary pop: from Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand to Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon.
The Grammys are not without defenders.
"The pundits whine every year about which critics' darlings get overlooked, but I think the Grammys do a lot to push the music industry to the forefront in a very positive way," says Charles Koppelman, chairman and chief executive officer of EMI Records Group North America. "A huge portion of the silent majority of the buying public still wait every year for that Grammy validation before they go out and make a purchase."
Says MCA Music Entertainment Group Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Al Teller: "The good news is that the Grammys focus public attention on the music in a powerful way. The bad news is that there are troubles with the composition of the voting membership and it threatens to marginalize the value of the entire award process."
The problem, some executives say, is that voters have been shamefully slow to pick up on bold new voices--virtually ignoring the entire development of rock 'n' roll except for an occasional breakthrough by the likes of the Beatles and U2. There were no Grammys for Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry in the '50s, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan in the '60s, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen in the '70s, R.E.M. and the Clash in the '80s.
When Greene took over as president and chief executive officer of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences in 1988, one of his stated goals was to bring fresh blood into the organization so that there would be greater appreciation for contemporary music.
Greene, a former recording artist from Atlanta, launched a membership drive that has resulted in boosting the total membership from 3,200 to 10,000--bringing the average age down from the late 30s to the late 20s, he says.
By adding new categories to reflect the growing importance of hard rock and rap, the Grammy balloting has resulted in more cutting-edge artists being nominated. But that hasn't changed the tendency to stick with mainstream bestsellers in the main categories: best album, record, song and new artist.
In the '90s, when hard rock and rap represented the most vital strains in pop, the winners for best album and record included Phil Collins, Quincy Jones, Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston and Eric Clapton. Clapton is back in the best album competition this year, joined in the race against Bennett and "3 Tenors" with seven-time winner Bonnie Raitt and English singer-songwriter Seal.
With Bennett or "3 Tenors" having a good chance to represent 1994, Grammy critics think the results speak for themselves.
"They may say they're trying to change things, but you know what? Trying is not doing," Geffen says. "If they say it can't be changed, then they're incompetent. As far as I'm concerned, the voters bear little resemblance to the world of people who actually love and buy records."
So, who voted to nominate "The 3 Tenors" as one of the five best records of the year?
Therein lies the heart of the Grammy debate.
The truth is, nobody in the industry knows who cast the votes.
Greene thinks that's a good thing. He won't reveal the voters' identities or even disclose a statistical breakdown of their ages or professions.
"If we were to make that list available, every record company would lobby our members to death," Greene says. "Their names are kept secret in order to protect the membership from outside influence."
Others, however, poke fun at the mystery list. If it ever did become public, they speculate, people may be shocked to find out that scores of voters have, in fact, little connection to the music at all.
Although the membership list is a mystery, the names of the academy's Los Angeles board of governors is public. Some of them are willing to discuss the voting process.
Singer Darlene Koldenhoven, a voting member since 1986, says she listened to about 100 records before voting for the "3 Tenors" this year.
"What people forget is that the Grammys are supposed to represent excellence in all fields of music--not just rock," says Koldenhoven, who won a Grammy in the best jazz vocal duo category in 1986. "I was really excited to see that the 3 Tenors made it into the running. I think it's a fabulous sign of how broad the awards have become that they were even nominated."
But, several academy members, including two board members, say they can't even remember which records they voted for this year. They agreed to be interviewed if their names weren't used.
One former record label staffer allows his secretary to prepare his ballot, voting specifically, he says, for artists affiliated with his marketing firm's clients.
Former academy President Joe Smith says the biggest problem with the process is that membership in the academy is "eternal." Once you're in, you're in forever.
"It's ridiculous that a trombone player from Ray Conniff's orchestra should be allowed to vote on what constitutes excellent art in 1994, but a record executive involved in the music on a daily basis is excluded," says Smith, a former Capitol Records chairman who lobbied unsuccessfully for changes in the eligibility requirements during his brief tenure in 1986 as the first paid president of the academy.
"Creative values change rapidly in the record business, and unless somebody who played on a session 30 years ago actually keeps up with each musical trend, how can they be qualified to make competent judgments?"
The only information that the academy will divulge is that the voting body consists of about 8,000 members who are supposed to be actively involved on a creative or technical level in the recording industry.
To qualify, all an individual needs is to be listed for creative or technical contributions on six commercial recordings. This means the voting body comprises artists, songwriters, arrangers, studio session musicians and engineers--as well as "support" individuals such as art directors, photographers and writers of liner notes.
Among those the academy bars from voting are artist-and-repertoire agents--the people who discover new talent for record labels--as well as the executives who run the companies. Under the academy charter, music industry titans such as Geffen are prevented from voting. But theoretically, a graphic artist who designed six album covers or an engineer who worked on six recordings 30 years ago can vote for the rest of their lives--as long as they pay the annual $65 dues.
Under the academy rules, each record company is allowed to submit up to five releases in 87 categories. That's more than 10,000 entries to be judged by the members, who are allowed to vote in eight out of 27 fields plus four additional categories: the coveted album, record and song of the year as well as best new artist.
The academy makes no effort to monitor whether members remain active in the industry or whether they even hear any of the music for which they vote.
Greene says he takes great pride that the academy is an independent democratic organization that strives to recognize artistic excellence and create greater public awareness of the culturally diverse contributions of individuals in the music industry.
"What you have here is 8,000 qualified voters who come from every walk of life," Greene says. "The only way to change that is to create some kind of blue-ribbon selection process. . . . While that might result in hipper, more contemporary choices, it would not be a democratic process."
Thomas O'Neil, who has written books on the Grammys and the Emmys, disagrees. He sides with record executives who believe that the process is obsolete.
"The problem is that the Grammy voters are voting on music they haven't heard--and that's unfair to artists," O'Neil says.
The mistake the academy made, O'Neil says, was that it modeled the Grammy system after the Oscars, where winners are chosen by the popular vote of film professionals. That system works in the film world primarily because fewer than 300 feature movies are made in Hollywood each year, with about 50 or so competing in the top categories.
But the music world is closer to television, where there are far too many shows each year to evaluate. O'Neil points out that the 7,600-member TV academy resolved that problem 20 years ago by creating 80 blue-ribbon judging panels consisting of the nominees' peers. Voting panels are required to watch and evaluate each entry in their respective category.
Because it would be impossible for any individual to hear the 10,000 records entered for nominations each year, Grammy voters repeatedly reward the artists whose names are the most familiar, O'Neil says.
"The Emmys used to have a credibility problem, but they came up with a solution that is well-respected in their industry," O'Neil says. "It's time for the people who run the Grammys to face the music. If they ever hope to have any credibility, the academy needs to make some big changes."
Critics of the Grammy system appear as angry at times over what they see as Greene's reluctance to listen to their complaints as the problems they see in the academy itself.
Of the dozen high-level industry sources interviewed, more than half characterized Greene as "arrogant" and "inflexible."
Some of his detractors believe that the academy should dismantle the current governing body and consider creating a new blue-ribbon congress of voters subject to election.
"Mike Greene is the poster boy for the term-limits argument," says Dan Klores, a powerful New York public relations chief and an executive member of the Grammys' 1994 New York Host Committee. "Many people in the music industry believe that things have deteriorated to the point where the entire executive committee and all the voting members should resign."
Greene denies the charges, insisting that the real reason label chiefs and others are so upset about the Grammy process is that they can't manipulate it or control who wins.
"I don't think I've ever been arrogant in my dealings with them, but I do sometimes get intransigent," he says. "I think people who run large corporations are very used to being able to throw their weight around. Everybody knows that our voting process is beyond reproach. We can't be bought and we can't be influenced, and frankly some people don't like that."
What if the companies actually stage a rival show?
The Recording Industry Assn. of America, which represents all the major record labels in the United States, hired an agent to meet recently with representatives for NBC-TV to discuss the possibility of staging its own musical telecast in November, 1996, as a prelude to the holiday sales rush.
This wouldn't mean the end of the Grammys, whose telecast generates $5 million-plus in royalty licensing fees for the academy. The awards competition already competes with a myriad of other music programs on television--including the American Music Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards, the Billboard Awards and the Country Music Assn. Awards.
Even more than the awards, the value of these shows for recording artists is the opportunity to perform live before millions of people. So, it's doubtful that many would pass up the chance for the Grammy exposure even if the record companies staged their show. The artists would just appear on both of them.
"I'm not worried about it," Greene says of having another rival show.
He is concerned, however, that a loss of record company enthusiasm could mean a loss of income for the Grammy-related social and educational programs he has championed.
Greene has been effective in advocating low-cost health-care benefits for musicians and in administering music scholarships. He continues to lobby for reinstatement of quality music education in American school curricula. Those are all areas that Greene says leaders in the $12-billion record industry have long neglected.
Trying to calm the storm, Greene says he has spoken privately this month to several disgruntled record chiefs and plans to meet with them in April to give them a chance to air their grievances. In fact, he says, the academy's board of trustees was already planning to gather soon to address previous complaints raised by executives.
"I know people get frustrated with us, but this battle has been going on for as long as business people and creative people have been colliding in the marketplace," Greene says. "Pop and rock songs may be what sell most and what gets played on the radio, but these are not the only kinds of music that exist in this country. The Grammys were also designed to reward blues and Christian and folk and classical and dozens of other categories.
"There's a simple reason why we're so vigilant about keeping the Grammys pure and independent. Because at the end of the day the only thing we really have left is our credibility. And we are very zealous about making sure that our credibility remains intact."
* The 37th annual Grammy Awards are Wednesday at the Shrine Auditorium. The program, hosted by comedian Paul Reiser, will be televised on CBS starting at 8 p.m.