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If you have kids of a certain age who play sports, then you know that no matter what the game, or how well they perform, everybody goes home with a trophy. It's the great thing about modern-day America — we want our children to believe they're all winners.
Sort of like the Grammys.
In 1969, when the Rolling Stones released "Let It Bleed," there were 45 Grammy Awards (none, of course, for the Stones). In 1988, when Public Enemy put out "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," there were 76 Grammy Awards (none for Public Enemy). Today there are — God help us — 108 Grammy Awards.
Gospel fans can choose among six categories. Classical music has 11 awards. You can also win a best Hawaiian music album and best polka album, not to mention my favorite, because I can only imagine the fierce lobbying that must happen in a room full of over-caffeinated stereophiles — the best surround-sound album.
Why so many Grammys? Obviously, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences wants to use the awards to highlight the diversity of modern music, as well as its growth in new areas. But the best defense for award proliferation turned my question around. "How many movies were eligible for Oscars last year compared to how many Oscars are given out?" asked Neil Tesser, a longtime Chicago jazz critic and former Recording Academy trustee.
Do the math, he said. There are roughly 300 movies eligible for 24 Oscar categories, compared with 16,000 recordings eligible for 108 Grammy categories. "So we're dealing with an entry base that has roughly 50 times as many entries and yet the Grammys only give out five times as many awards," he argues. "If the Oscars are the gold standard, we're actually being very frugal with our awards."
The other question worth asking is, does an artist who wins one of these arcane awards benefit at all from the goodwill and publicity? Last year, veteran bluegrass musician Tim O'Brien's "Fiddler's Green" won a Grammy for traditional folk album. I asked his manager, Brad Hunt, if the Grammy exposure helped sell any records. It turned out O'Brien was a great test case, since he'd released two CDs simultaneously, one that won a Grammy, one that didn't.
"I'd love to say it made a difference, but honestly, the two records sold almost exactly the same — 20,000 copies apiece," says Hunt. But Hunt suspects the award was responsible for less obvious benefits, noting that O'Brien's concert fees increased afterward, as did offers for movie score and soundtrack work. "It may not show up in SoundScan, but that 'Grammy-winning artist' label definitely put more offers on the table. Tim seems to have a lot broader recognition than he did before."
So maybe all those awards do count for something. And maybe that's why they're creating more of them every day. If you asked my son today what kind of music he wants to play, he'd say blues or hip-hop. But I think when he realizes there's a Grammy for best instrumental arrangement accompanying vocalist, right there for the taking, he'll see that studying his piano scales could pay off big time. And, hey, isn't that what the Grammys are really all about?