As you may have heard, a major-label-praising, marketing executive by the name of Steve Stoute, took out a full page ad in the Sunday New York Times (at an estimated $40k price tag), lashing out at the fact that The Arcade Fire took the Album of the Year over more mainstream artists like Eminem and Katy Perry. In short, he lamented the fact that the music industry didn’t work in the usual corrupt, “payola” ways and did not reward the.artists who spend big bucks on their popularity. Stoute argues that, “Using Eminem’s, Kanye West’s or Justin Bieber’s name in the billing to ensure viewership and to deliver the all-too-important ratings for its advertisers,” should then mean they also receive awards for this draw. A puzzling notion for most of us egalitarians, who are enthused that the music business is shifting in a way where corruption and money doesn’t buy merit and reward. The letter reinforces the notion of major-label-fat-cats and ad execs who are disappointed when their money doesn’t buy them the results which they feel should lead to trophies on their shelf.
Stoule’s leading hypothesis reads that, “I have come to the conclusion that the Grammy Awards have clearly lost touch with contemporary popular culture.” An idea send most of us into a cackling laughter, since we felt this way for years until the events of last Sunday night. For some time, most of us have lamented the bizarre ways the Grammy’s have determined who they award their prize. Instead of focusing on which artists made the relevant contribution to the musical community, they instead rewarded an “old boys club” of familiar names and legacy artists.
Famously, rock dinosaurs Jethro Tull beat Mettalica’s Black Album for Metal Album of the Year, subsequently sending smoke out of many music fan’s ears. When one of the most important albums in a genre’s history was trumped by a group that hardly fell into the category, it showed the flaws in the Grammy’s merit system. This error was a telling illustration that which ever group had a familiar name with an aged musician demographic took the prize. Allowing out-of-touch music veterans to vote on musical genres they do not appreciate or participate in often led to mind-boggling outcomes like the Jethro Tull incident. Flaws that Stoule points out, but saw it more as a snub to mainstream artists who had earned the award by buying their way into pop culture relevance.
This year we saw a new pattern emerge. The Grammys choose to honor an album that will have a cultural impact for years to come. When The Arcade Fire won, we finally found the The Grammy’s getting it right for the first time in decades. While I do not personally enjoy The Arcade Fire’s latest album (though my 60-year-old Mother does) it cannot be argued that they did not create a record that will shape culture for years to come, much more so than Eminem’s, Katy Perry or Lady Antebellum (I can’t bring myself to disparage Lady GaGa, since there is no doubt that she has stepped out of the box and shaped music in her own way, but was heavily awarded for the original version of her record at the 2010 Grammys).
To understand why The Grammy’s decision was so smart you need to understand what The Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs did different. In the above video you can see the use of Podcast multi-media technology merged into the popular Apple iTunes album format, which changed the digital album experience in a way no one has in a long time. By embedding Wikipedia links and the lyrics to the record in a unique and new fan experience, the group gave listeners a new way to understand a lyrical message behind the record. The group also employed an interesting method of mastering the record by pressing the record to individual 12″ singles to capture the character of vinyl and releasing that as the digital version, so that all of their dans would experience what the sound of the LP format would bring to the record. Not to mention also employing, interactive videos that push boundaries that none of the other artists up for this nomination were doing (GaGa aside). All the while doing this on an indie label budget and using countless outside-the-box marketing techniques to get noticed and debut at #1 on the Billboard charts.
True music fans like to think the artists who are going to get these awards are going to be artists who are remembered for years to come. The Grammys took a leap of faith that Justin Bieber will probably go the way of Tiffany, Hanson or The Backstreet Boys, aka groups who exist as nostalgia. History will be the judge of this, but what we can say is that no one made a more groundbreaking, memorable and challenging album experience in the mainstream this year than The Suburbs. The Grammys rewarded that, rather than another artist who will fade into reality TV obscurity or become a Where Are They Now? factoid. We should be taking out ads in praise of this institution finally refining their system to reward innovation and bold vision, instead of trying to restore the corrupt days of gatekeepers rewarding those with financial advantage and brand name familarity.