Grammys to take on a leaner note

The Grammys are getting a face-lift.

The Recording Academy on Wednesday announced a major overhaul of its musical categories that, among other changes, will consolidate a number of awards, eliminate separate awards for male and female vocal performances in the pop, rock, R&B and country genres, and reduce the overall number of categories from 109 to 78, beginning next year.

A number of other formerly distinct categories have been combined or folded into existing ones. A new rule will also allow the academy to suspend and eventually eliminate categories that receive fewer than 25 entries for three consecutive years, and to transfer subsequent submissions in that category into the "next most appropriate category." The changes do not affect the top four categories, album of the year, record of the year, song of the year and best new artist.

The changes, which will be in place for the 54th Grammy Awards next year, implicitly acknowledge a widespread complaint by industry observers and casual fans that the number of categories had become bloated and unwieldy. But at a Wednesday morning news presentation at its Santa Monica headquarters, academy officials repeatedly sought to characterize the changes as a "restructuring" rather than a reduction.

"All categories will remain, they'll just be found in different genres," said President and Chief Executive Neil Portnow. "The message isn't about cutting, it's about changing the way we present the awards. We welcome all artists who make music in the Grammy process, it's just going to look a little different."

Since 1959, the number of award categories has expanded from an original 28, evolving one category at a time on a piecemeal basis and "without an overall vision," Portnow said. The result has been more of a "collage," he said, "without a continuity across the various genre fields." The restructuring, he said, would give the Grammys a more cohesive structure that better mirrors the current musical landscape.

Under the new streamlined structure, some categories, including best rock or rap gospel album and best Hawaiian music album, have been eliminated. Some genres will have their overall number of awards reduced, such as R&B, which is going from eight awards to just four, and rock, which is going from seven awards to four. The consolidation of some categories means, for example, that Faith Hill and Tim McGraw would compete in the same category for best country solo performance instead of in separate female and male categories. Similarly, Rihanna and Usher could find themselves in the same R&B solo category.

Academy officials said that the restructuring process began in 2009, when the organization initiated a comprehensive evaluation of both the award categories and voting procedures. The awards and nominations committee spent more than a year on the review, said five-time Grammy Award-winner and songwriter/record producer Jimmy Jam. It then submitted its recommendations to the Recording Academy's board of trustees.

"We tried to make the numbers match up and be fair across the board," said Jam, who was chairman of the board of trustees at that time and also served on the awards and nominations committee.

"Everybody that could enter the process before can enter the process," he said. "We're not cutting anybody."

Over time, the swelling number of categories and genre distinctions had resulted in curious and at times confusing nominations. In 2009, for example, the comedy rap group Lonely Island received a nomination in the best rap song category, even though the song's original version was released in a "Saturday Night Live" clip.

That same year, the blue-eyed soul duo Hall & Oates was nominated for best pop performance by a group or duo with vocals for a live version of a song that had been a hit nearly 30 years earlier. And in one of the most notable instances of genre confusion, in 1989 the progressive rock group Jethro Tull won the award for best heavy metal album. The restructuring of the voting process may reduce the likelihood of such incidents.

The rule changes may not be greatly visible to the casual viewer of the annual awards telecast, Portnow said. The show has gradually evolved into more of a live performance spectacle by a variety of bands and soloists with a relative handful of awards handed out on camera. Most of the trophies are awarded before the telecast.

In coming weeks, academy officials will be touring the country to visit artists and music company representatives to discuss the changes and solicit feedback. Joel Amsterdam, vice president of publicity at Concord Music, which represents Paul Simon and jazz artist Esperanza Spalding, said the restructuring sounded like "a great idea, long overdue."

"There were far too many categories for too long," he said. "Music is inherently a niche art form — people like certain kinds of music — and when you drill to such a fine level you end up having people vote on things that they've never heard before."

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