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Behind Grammy’s Closed Door

To combat increasing complaints over some of its key Grammy nominations, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences revolutionized the voting system four years ago by coming up with the “Three Tenors” rule--so called because the change was initiated after the best-selling “The Three Tenors in Concert 1994" album was nominated for the album of the year, even though it was considered a novelty in its own classical world.

Where nominees had previously been chosen by the academy’s 10,000 voting members, the new system gave a blue-ribbon nomination committee final authority in the categories of best album, best record, best new artist and best song.

The entire membership still votes for nominees, but their top 20 choices are then turned over to the committee, which chooses the five nominees in these categories. The names of committee members, who meet each December in Los Angeles, are kept secret to prevent record company lobbying. But one committee member, whose identity was learned by The Times, agreed to discuss the panel’s workings on the understanding that the member not be identified.

Question: The thing that everybody wants to know about what you do in the committee is how much you tinker with the preliminary membership vote. Do you throw out what they come up with and substitute your own judgment? Would this year’s nominees in the best album category, for instance, be a lot different if there weren’t the committee system?

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Answer: No, in both cases.

Q: How close usually is your consensus to the membership’s top five choices?

A: To the best of my recollection, this year’s five were clearly within the members’ top six or seven. . . . The same with the best record. It always surprises us just how close the votes are.

Q: How about past years? How many different records would have been nominated without the committee?

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A: My guess is probably somewhere in the area of one per category per year. . . . And in most cases they would have all been in the top six or seven. I can’t remember where we took a record that was like 19 and made that a nominee.

Q: Have there been records on the list of 20 that would have been an obvious embarrassment?

A: There have been one or two that have come up in the top 20 that we would have been unhappy to see nominated.

Q: Could you name a record that might have been embarrassing?

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A: Well, let me answer that this way. We wouldn’t have looked forward to “Macarena,” for instance, getting a best record nomination. I think most people would agree it wasn’t a Grammy-quality record, yet it was a tremendously popular phenomenon worldwide, with a lot of fans getting a lot of pleasure out of it. But that’s the kind of thing we would watch out for. Something else is a popular group or artist going back and rerecording their old hits. That could make us uncomfortable in the best album category.

Q: Michael Greene, the academy president-CEO, is such a strong personality that there is some suspicion in the industry that he controls the meetings. Is that true?

A: No one controls it, and I’ll explain why it’s not even possible to do so. In all four committee sessions, we have a list of the 20 recordings in front of us. Most of us are pretty familiar with them already, but we tend to sample a number of tracks in, say, the best album category. People can also speak about the virtues or lack of virtues of the recordings.

The goal in each category is to take the 20 nominations that the members send forth and get the list down to a consensus of the seven or eight that we feel are the [best]. When we get that consensus, we stop. Each member of the committee then fills out a ballot, which isn’t tabulated that day. So when we leave the room, no one--including Mike Greene--knows the results. The only ones who know are the accountants when they tabulate it later.

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Q: Do you know during, say, the album voting which albums were the top five choices of the membership?

A: Not initially, but at some point during the meeting, it is not uncommon to ask the staff to tell us where a particular recording fell in the membership’s top 20.

Q: What about the reasons for starting the committee? What model was it based on?

A: The national nomination committees that we’ve had for a number of years in the fields of jazz, classical and music video. The goal of them all is the same. . . . It was felt the nominations in jazz, classical and music video didn’t reflect the excellence in those fields each year--and the same reasoning was [eventually] applied to the four pop categories.

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Q: Why aren’t there similar committees in rock and country or rap?

A: There isn’t the sense they are necessary. Whenever we have had a constituency that is consistently [unhappy] with the nominations, the committee approach has proven to be an effective [response].

Q: So, if a particular field, such as country or rap, was critical of the nominations, the academy might set up committees for those fields as well?

A: Yes. If members felt a field was not getting the best recordings into the process over a long period of time, a recommendation would go to the awards committee and if they agreed, they would make a recommendation to the board of trustees, who could then set up a committee.

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Q: How does the screening system work in the pop area? Are there four separate committees to consider albums, records, new artists and songs, or does one committee oversee all four?

A: Just one. It’s a pretty diverse group . . . geographically, musically, ethnically. We sit in a room for a day or a day and a half and debate the merits of the eligible recordings.

Q: If you look at this year’s best album nominees, you get the feeling that the committee acts like a political party and tries to balance the ticket. . . . A bit of something for everyone--country, hip-hop, rock and so forth. Is that the case?

A: I can see how you might ask that this year because of the nominations . . . but it is never discussed explicitly that we need some kind of musical balance.

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Q: How many of your choices for best album of 1998 are among the five nominees?

A: Three of my personal favorites are on it. I adore the Sheryl Crow and the Garbage records, but I voted for Lauryn Hill.

Q: Was there a lot of support for her in the committee?

A: Yes. It’s not every year that the public and the Grammy voters come together and agree on a record like this. It was an immediate consensus choice in the committee discussion. Everyone who was familiar with the record loved it, and those who didn’t know it well came quickly to see its virtues.

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Pop Eye has the week off.


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