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The Grammy voting process is completely ridiculous

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Kanye with a bunch of Grammys. This could be you!
Kanye with a bunch of Grammys. This could be you!
(Kevin Winter/Getty)

The Grammys are the second-most popular awards show broadcast after only the Oscars. And unlike the Oscars, they're only growing in popularity.

But while lots of people tune in to watch, they often seem to mostly be checking out the high-octane performances. The winners often seem disconnected from musical reality. Ostensibly, the awards honor "artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position."

But if you watch the Grammys, you know "album sales or chart position" seem to help far more than actual artistic quality. Those climbing the stairs to hold those golden gramophones are more likely to be Top 40 superstars than the top musicians and artists working. Some of the best musicians ever — Bob Marley, Diana Ross, Jimi Hendrix — never won an award, even with the 83 (yes, 83) competitive categories the Grammys hand out awards in.

But there's one big reason these winners can be so terrible and probably will be for the foreseeable future: The nominations and voting process is a mess.

Here's how you can win a Grammy.

So how do I get nominated?

ricky martin grammy

Ricky Martin poses with his Grammy in 1999. (Vince Bucci/Getty)

First, you have to produce a song within the time frame set by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. This year, the Grammy eligibility period runs from October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2015. Thus, it is entirely possible the 2016 Grammys will honor albums and songs released in 2014.

That calendar is why, say, Taylor Swift released the Grammy-nominated "Shake It Off," the first single from her album 1989, in mid-August 2014. The single was eligible for the 2015 Grammys, but the album, released in October, wasn't eligible until this year's awards. (It's now up for Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album.)

Second, your song also has to be commercially released and sold in the United States to be eligible. What this means, in an age when anyone can upload their music to YouTube, is unclear. The Grammy guidelines state that an album must be "available for sale" through a broad distributor and not an "artist's website." One can assume, then, that anything that isn't in the iTunes store or available on Amazon isn't eligible.

But if your song or album clears those hurdles, you can submit it to the Recording Academy for consideration. That seems simple enough, but doing that paperwork sets up a daunting challenge. The Academy receives more than 20,000 entries per year. And while that's a high number, it's not close to the amount of music being produced.

So why hold back your album from Grammy consideration? If you're on a major label, your label might hold back your album in favor of one it thinks might have a better shot. If you're on a small label, your representation might not have any idea how to submit at all. But if you're handling this all yourself, you're in luck. The Academy accepts online submissions.

Here's a question, though:

Are you a new artist?

If so, you're in a good spot. Probably the easiest major Grammy to get nominated for and have a chance at winning is the Best New Artist category.

You don't have to be a totally unheard-of artist to be nominated here. The award says it's for someone who "first establishes the public identity of that artist or established group" as a performer. So even if you've been working in the industry for years, if this is your first solo album, you can be a new artist.

In fact, the Best New Artist category is one of the strangest categories at the Grammys because it's completely inconsistent. Some people believe the award is cursed and will destroy the career of a young artist. But all in all, it's an award that can be a total surprise, particularly because it does not have to be an artist's first album. It just has to be the first recording that "establishes the public identity" — in other words, brings them into the mainstream. That means an artist like Bon Iver could win Best New Artist for his second album.

One of the biggest problems with the Grammy voting committee is it's so big that many voting members are not familiar with every category. What this means is that big names and Top 40 artists are more likely to get nominated from the entry pool and win in the voting rounds. As Rob Kenner, a Grammy screener, wrote for Complex:

I soon learned another unwritten rule during private conversations with other committee members: be careful about green-lighting an album by someone who was really famous if you don’t want to see that album win a Grammy. Because famous people tend to get more votes from clueless Academy members, regardless of the quality of their work.

In the Best New Artist category, name recognition is going to be less of an issue than in a category like pop or hip-hop. But sometimes even that category is flooded with well-known names. Both Sam Smith and Iggy Azalea released their first albums in 2014 and were nominated for the award in 2015.

mumford grammy

The members of Mumford & Sons hold their Grammy. (Jason Merritt/Getty)

Who votes on the nominations and awards?

Only Recording Academy voting members vote on Grammy winners. The Academy flaunts the fact that the voting committees are made up of a jury of a musician's peers. What that means in practicality is that musicians, engineers, lyricists, producers, and liner note writers can all apply to vote.

There are four ways to become eligible to vote for Grammy winners:

  1. Have been credited with 12 physical or digital tracks released online only and currently available for purchase, with at least one track in the past five years
  2. Have six credits on commercially released tracks currently available for sale and distributed through physical distribution outlets (such as record stores), with at least one track in the past five years
  3. Have won a Grammy before
  4. Get an endorsement from a current voting member

After a person has met one of these requirements, she can apply, pay $100 in yearly dues, and vote for the Grammys. Voting members are asked to vote in only nine genre categories and the four main categories (Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist) when choosing nominees. They are then asked to vote for winners in up to 20 genre categories and the four major categories, so that their expertise is best used.

But that means some genres are voted on less than others in the nominations round, and then many people without expertise vote to pick genre winners.

So those self-selected voters decide whether I get nominated?

Not really.

In the mid-1990s, the Recording Academy quietly assembled a committee to review voters' choices. This committee goes over the nominations for the top four categories, plus the Country, R&B, Latin, Gospel, Jazz, Classical, and Music Video categories. Then they make adjustments if they feel adjustments are needed. Basically, all the categories that drive television ratings, as well as categories in specialty genres, can be rigged by this undisclosed private committee.

To the Grammys' credit, this committee has some value. It was established after Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down won Album of the Year over Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA and Prince's Purple Rain. Richie was far from the best choice that year, and his win helped create the public perception that the Grammys were cut off from what "good music" meant.

What the committee does and how it makes choices, though, remains fairly private. The names of members are kept secret, and the only journalist to get a member of the committee to speak (off the record) was Robert Hilburn in 1999 for the LA Times. In that article, the unnamed source explains how the group decides the nominees:

The goal in each category is to take the 20 nominations that the members send forth and get the list down to a consensus of the seven or eight that we feel are the [best]. When we get that consensus, we stop. Each member of the committee then fills out a ballot, which isn't tabulated that day. So when we leave the room, no one — including Mike Greene — knows the results. The only ones who know are the accountants when they tabulate it later.

Notably, this manipulation goes completely unnoted on the Grammy website.

Destiny's Child with Grammy

Destiny's Child won a Grammy in the R&B genre. (Vince Bucci/Getty)

Do I have a better chance of getting nominated with a genre song?

The awards shown on the live telecast include the big four — Best Song, Best Album, Best Record, and Best New Artist. Artists in all genres are eligible for all four.

But there are plenty of Grammy categories that aren't shown on television, like Best Metal Album or Best Original Cast Recording. The pop categories usually end up being defined by Top 40 hits, and without a major production company or label behind you, it might be a tall order to get a Grammy nomination. The same goes for other mainstream genres, like R&B, country, and rock.

But if your passion isn't being a pop star but rather the heady beauty of "regional roots music," you, too, could be a Grammy winner.

There's a catch here, however. If you're going to compete in a specific genre, you have to make sure your album is really in that genre

Who decides whether my album is really a genre album?

A screening committee decides which albums will be on the initial ballot that voters use to pick the five nominees in each category. Members of the screening committee are not necessarily voting members but instead are "industry experts." These include journalists, radio DJs, label executives, and the creators of music themselves.

A group representing each of the 30 Grammy genres (see a list here) meets at Grammy headquarters in Santa Monica. The rules state that an album has to be 51 percent genre to be nominated in a category.

As Kenner wrote in Complex, "Some albums were easy to categorize while others posed more of a challenge. Where, for instance, was the line between dancehall and electronica or rap or alternative?"

This is how an album like Iggy Azalea's The New Classic gets nominated as both a rap album and for "best pop duo/group performance." So long as an album is 51 percent a genre, it can be categorized as that. Thus, the closer your album is to the mainstream of music (meaning, sadly, the more diluted your genre music is), the better chance you'll have of sneaking into several genres. Name recognition and chart position help.

taylor with grammys

Taylor Swift holds the Grammy for Best Country Artist. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty)

Wow. So I still need to get kind of famous to win a Grammy?

Yes. Because the voting base is large and semi-unregulated, the absolute best way to win a Grammy is to gain enough name recognition that the voters will know you by reputation and check off your name.

Maybe Twitter fame can get you there? Maybe a scandal? But a genuinely great, deep genre album will struggle to win on quality alone, because so many of the people voting in your category won't have a deep knowledge of your genre.

It sounds like I could do everything right and still not win a Grammy.

Yep. Your best bet for winning a Grammy, really, is to make a good album. But once you're done with that, consider stirring up some controversy.

Correction: Due to an editorial error, this article stated Lionel Richie won Record of the Year. He actually won Album of the Year. The article has been corrected and updated.