Grammy Awards: Musicians will protest category reductions

Some days, it just doesn't pay to try and hand out trophies.

The Grammy Awards, which roll around again on Sunday, have long been a popular target for criticism from musicians (think Kanye West), music writers and, on more than one occasion, "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening (Homer's response upon being reminded that he once won a Grammy: "I mean an award that's worth something!").

The Grammys have been accused over time of being out of touch, of favoring commercial success over artistic excellence and of being bloated with too many categories (110 at its peak, compared with about two dozen for the Academy Awards).

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This year, the music industry organization that bestows the gramophone-shaped trophies is taking more hits than ever for its attempt to slim the awards ceremony down by restructuring various categories to bring the total down to 78. The greatest reductions took place in R&B, American roots music, classical, Latin, jazz, country, pop and rock fields.

Dozens of musicians have complained about the Recording Academy's elimination of categories that had offered industry recognition to specialized genres. Many plan to demonstrate outside Staples Center on Sunday as their peers file in to see who does take home Grammys this year. On Thursday, protest petitions were presented to Recording Academy officials signed by about 23,000 people.

"In the bigger picture, diversity is important," said Latin jazz musician Bobby Matos, who also will play Sunday afternoon at an "anti-Grammy" concert and jam session at Mama Juana's restaurant in Studio City, in part because the Latin jazz category was among those eliminated.

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"It's not all just about pop music, hip-hop and country," said Matos, one of the musicians behind Grammywatch.org, which formed last year in opposition to the category restructuring. "We deserve some recognition, and if we're not recognized by the organization that purports to recognize artistic excellence, then we become invisible and irrelevant."

Sunday's jazz jam is one of several events being staged by those who feel disenfranchised by the new rules. The shows and protests are a way both to salve wounded feelings and to give those who won't be in on the Grammy party a place and reason to celebrate.

"Kelly Price & Friends Unplugged: For the Love of R&B" served Thursday night as both celebration for her three nominations and a jam session to preserve that genre, which was scaled back from eight categories to four this year. Price packed a Hollywood nightclub for the late-night session where she gave the floor to her peers, most notably Whitney Houston, who briefly duetted.

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Price, who has served two terms on the board of the academy's Atlanta branch, voiced hope that the changes will spark urban talent to become more active in their local chapters because nominations come from peers.

Matos noted that Grammy recognition for jazz, blues, gospel and folk recordings, more than in high-profile categories such as album, record and new artist of the year, can bring more support from record labels and better concert bookings for those musicians.

"I've been a member of the Recording Academy since the early 1980s, and I think they do their best to get it right in an increasingly fragmented musical world," said Scott Billington, vice president of artists and repertoire at Rounder Records, an independent label whose recordings have often appeared in categories that were eliminated or absorbed into larger ones this year. "It may be tough to swallow a couple of these things. It does seem a little bizarre to have Hawaiian records competing with polka" in the new regional roots music album category. "But I think it's a tough thing for the Recording Academy to come up with a good way to organize it. It's not an easy task."

Some protesters see racial bias in the revisions, others see them as more economically based, still others consider the move a power play by corporate major labels against the smaller indie labels, whose artists often made up the nominees in the categories that have been eliminated or tucked under larger umbrellas. Several musicians banded together and filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the Recording Academy to rescind the changes.

"What they did was wrong, they did it in secret and they did it without asking the membership," said Bobby Sanabria, one of the plaintiffs in the suit filed last year. "That's the crux of the lawsuit. The nominations, I am happy for my friends. But that's nothing to do with the lawsuit." That suit continues to wend its way through the courts.

What began as a movement instigated largely by musicians who have been directly affected by the restructuring has expanded to include celebrity sympathizers such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and African American author and civil rights activist Cornel West, who side with those claiming the change has had a disproportionate effect on musicians of color.

"It's no coincidence that most of those categories deleted are over music rooted in the new majority communities," said Roberto Lovato, co-founder of the Presente.org civil rights group that has thrown in with Grammywatch.org to support the protest.

"We support the issues of these musicians and see this as a civil rights issue," Lovato said. "The message is clear: Reinstate the 31 categories now and stop discriminating against black, Latino, Native American and Hawaiian communities."

Since expanding a petition drive that had been started by Grammywatch organizers to Presente's broader-based coalition of activists, Lovato and Matos said the number of signatures collected has mushroomed from about 6,000 to more than 23,000.

Petitions were presented by a group of Grammywatch supporters on Thursday to officials at the Recording Academy's office in Santa Monica.

Recording Academy President Neil Portnow said he's sensitive to the musicians' complaints, but said, "We stand behind our process.... Change is always hard for those that are used to something happening in the same way for a long time. But sometimes change is good."

Reiterating what he said last year when the changes were announced, the most significant retooling of the Grammy Awards structure in decades was the result of "a long, exhaustive study that involved our members, who represent the music community."

Portnow added, however, that "our process is a fluid one, and this year we've already scheduled, as we do every year, meetings of committees that review and deal with issues related to our process. They will meet and evaluate the changes that were implemented, and there will be opportunities for changes again, as there are every year."

randy.lewis@latimes.com

Times staff writer Gerrick Kennedy contributed to this report.

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