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How the Grammy Awards are adapting to the era of streaming music

How the Grammy Awards are adapting to the era of streaming music
Chance the Rapper performs in Austin, Tex., in 2015. (Lenny Gilmore / RedEye / TNS)

Chance the Rapper made music-business history last month when his album "Coloring Book" became the first streaming-only release to chart on the Billboard 200.

Next year the Chicago hip-hop star could score another first with his acclaimed record that's available to stream through services like Apple Music and Spotify but not to purchase as a CD or paid download.

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The Recording Academy on Thursday announced changes to rules governing the Grammy Awards, including one that allows streaming-only titles to be considered for music's most prestigious prize. Such releases were previously ineligible to be nominated, but "it's clear now that streaming is here and probably here to stay," said Bill Freimuth, a Recording Academy executive in charge of the Grammys.

"As the academy — as all the academies are — we're often criticized for being out of step," Freimuth said. "So we strive very much to be of the moment as much as we can. This was one way to do it."

The rule change means that "Coloring Book" — a gospel-inflected set that's earned rave reviews and debuted on Billboard's chart at No. 8 with approximately 57 million streams — could become the first streaming-only title to win at the upcoming 59th Grammy Awards, which will recognize songs and albums released between Oct. 1, 2015 and Sept. 30, 2016. Trophies are to be handed out Feb. 12 in a televised ceremony at Staples Center.

The Recording Academy is following other music-industry gatekeepers in embracing streaming, which last year nearly doubled in use from the year before, according to Nielsen Music. (Spotify, the most popular on-demand streaming service, says it has 30 million paid subscribers; Apple Music, which launched last June, claims 15 million.)

In 2014, Billboard began incorporating streams in the formula that determines its album chart. And early this year the Recording Industry Assn. of America started counting streams toward its gold and platinum awards, which formerly recognized only sales.

Freimuth said it's important that a Grammy align with other goalposts in the business. But he added that the academy didn't want to "completely open the floodgates to every 12-year-old singing into a hairbrush on YouTube."

So the new rule carries some technical specifications: An eligible recording must have audio quality "comparable to at least 16-bit 44.1 kHz," for instance, and have "a verifiable online release date."

Another significant rule change announced Thursday involves the Grammys' best new artist prize, which has often attracted criticism for going to established artists such as Shelby Lynne, who famously won the award in 2001 — more than a decade after her debut came out.

Under the new guidelines, an artist "must have achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness and impacted the musical landscape during the eligibility period." Additionally, he or she need no longer have released a full album; now, five singles will suffice, a shift the academy says better matches how many emerging artists release music today.

And starting this year, academy members will be allowed to vote in no more than 15 categories (not counting the four general categories, such as best new artist and album of the year). That's down from 20, which Freimuth said was too many because it led to members voting in categories about which they knew little.

"We learned that that served as an invitation to break some of our other rules against vote trading and bloc voting," he added.

Asked if this new regulation might be called the Al Walser Decree — in reference to the obscure dance-music artist who earned a Grammy nomination in 2012 thanks largely to his robust lobbying efforts — Freimuth chuckled softly.

"You might call it that," he said.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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