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Grammys 2016 review: the music industry’s fear of Spotify, explained in one awards ceremony

The Grammys have become a yearly attempt to convince viewers the music industry should exist.

Frequent Spotify critic and Album of the Year winner Taylor Swift opened the Grammys.
Frequent Spotify critic and Album of the Year winner Taylor Swift opened the Grammys.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for NARAS
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The music industry is terrified. That much has been clear for a while.

But it's rarely been as clear as it was at the 2016 Grammys, which were much more sedate than the awards usually are. Indeed, there wasn't a truly terrific performance until about halfway through the show — when the one-two punch of Hamilton (live from Broadway) followed by Kendrick Lamar finally brought some energy to the stage — and the night was plagued by sound issues that swallowed the performances of everyone from Taylor Swift to Adele.

But if you were paying attention, you could see the Grammys' fear. The recurrent theme of the night struck two tones for the recording industry: 1) we are better than streaming services, and 2) we don't know how to compete with streaming services.

"Isn't a song worth more than a penny?"

The 58th GRAMMY Awards - Show
Neil Portnow (left) and Common discuss the music industry at the Grammys.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for NARAS

I was already musing on this topic before the segment that aired late in the show, when Recording Academy president Neil Portnow launched into a brief broadside against Spotify and its ilk. Songs played on some streaming services only offer artists a penny in compensation, he said. A penny! "Isn't a song worth more than a penny?" he asked, and the crowd went wild.

But the Grammys were just as subtly coded as an attempt to restore value to music. For instance, the night's big win for Album of the Year went to Spotify's top critic, Swift, and its centerpiece performance was by Adele, who refused to make her megahit album 25 available on the service (and wasn't even nominated for any Grammys, since her album came out after the eligibility cutoff; it'll almost certainly be nominated next year).

The telecast also opened with host LL Cool J repeatedly talking about great Grammy moments, and it concluded with Pitbull anxiously exclaiming that history was about to be made, because he was performing with Travis Barker, Joe Perry, and Robin Thicke, among others. This was real music, the show kindly suggested, made by real musicians. It was history in the making, and to devalue it — to a penny! — would be madness.

To some degree, this is what the Grammys always do. They're always insisting upon their own historic nature, to get you to keep watching. And they often boast gigantic, amazing performances to support that declaration, the sort of gigantic, amazing performances you can't see anywhere else.

If the VMAs are a youthful get-together, and awards like the CMAs are collections of various music subcultures, then the Grammys are the family reunion, where everybody shows up to smile and play nice.

But the Grammys didn't really play up this aspect of their personality as much as they might have this year. The telecast didn't feature as many duets between legends and newcomers as it has in the past, and the artist who was honored with the multi-genre tribute from five different artists was anodyne Lionel Richie, rather than David Bowie, who got a messy medley from Lady Gaga, the modern artist whose creative output most suggests she might have a Bowie-like career.

There might be a very good reason for this. If you think about it, the Grammys are the one event on the music calendar that most resembles sitting down and listening to music on Spotify.

How the Grammys are sort of like Spotify

The 58th GRAMMY Awards - Show
A Grammy-created supergroup honors the music of Lionel Richie. As you do.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for NARAS

Yeah, there are plenty of people who use Spotify to listen to the same 50 songs over and over again. But for the most part, the service's chief strength is that it offers you a significant swath of musical history, for a relatively sensible subscription fee, at the click of a button. If you ever want to embark on a jag that takes you from Johnny Cash to Kendrick Lamar to the original Broadway cast recording of Stephen Sondheim's Company, go nuts.

And that's what the Grammys offer, more or less, except they frequently offer it in steroidal, mashup form, where Lamar, the ghost of Cash, and Lin-Manuel Miranda might perform as a trio on a medley of hits by Parliament Funkadelic. Or so the awards' promotional campaign would have you believe.

But the Grammys have quietly grown slightly more conservative in recent years. Yes, they have to make room for the big nominees to perform, but they've generally skewed away from devoting the telecast to handing out trophies, in favor of staging ambitious musical numbers. This year's awards featured just eight prizes (out of 83 total) presented on TV, compared with 19 performances.

That's because the Grammys have had to concentrate less on rewarding music's best artists (or, at least, the best artists who also sell lots of albums) and more on providing a constant litany of reasons the music industry should continue to exist.

The big performances play into that. What do Swift and Adele and Lamar and country music's Little Big Town have in common besides sharing the Grammy stage? Why, they're all hugely successful musicians, of course, and if you like their stuff, why not support the industry that keeps bringing them to you? If you love any of them, isn't it worth buying a full album?

The two big problems, and how they're linked

The 58th GRAMMY Awards - Show
The Grammys end with a truly bizarre number from Pitbull.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for NARAS

There are a couple of issues here, and they're intricately linked. The first issue is that, essentially, the internet has completely dismantled the traditional, immensely popular method of making money from selling music, even though everybody who's still involved in the recording industry would like to pretend the internet will just go away and return them to the days when they could charge $16 for a CD at Tower Records.

But the second issue is the simple fact that for the vast majority of non-megastar musicians, the streaming economy is pretty much a disaster. (The megastars aren't making nearly as much on streaming as they could make from, say, iTunes sales, but it's not like they're in dire financial straits.) Some bands have loyal enough followings to scrape together a living via merchandising and touring, while others can find ways to release music essentially as a hobby, while working different jobs.

Music fans might see the first problem as a desirable one. The music industry, after all, really did jack up those CD prices to astronomical levels. But it also provided a place where artists who were still finding their voices could experiment and still expect to make a living wage, to say nothing of the producers and studio musicians and liner note writers who built solid careers while working way behind the scenes. The industry can be both corporate monolith and safe artistic haven; the new streaming overlords can have downsides too.

There's no really good solution for this. People will always want to listen to music, so somebody will eventually figure out a way to pay artists what they're worth via streaming. But it will take a while, and in the meantime there will be lots of chaos in the vast, mushy middle we inhabit right now.

So throwing a big party like the Grammys, even one that ostensibly celebrates music's versatility and vitality, must seem a little strange with the apocalypse bubbling on the horizon. Maybe that accounts for the unhurried nature of this year's show, where only Lamar seemed to really burst through the malaise and deliver a truly scorching performance.

How Kendrick Lamar showed the Grammys' best path forward

The 58th GRAMMY Awards - Show
Kendrick Lamar performs at the Grammys.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for NARAS

It was Lamar who simultaneously made the strongest argument for why music matters, and for why streaming remains the future of the industry — like it or not. His album, about the young black experience in America in the 2010s, is a big hit, but its reach is more substantial than it would have otherwise been, thanks to streaming, where it can be sampled and test-driven to a listener's heart's content.

In the past, a rap album might have broken through, but only after passing many, many gatekeepers. In the Spotify smorgasbord, all you have to know is that Lamar is a great rapper, and you can go check out his stuff. The Grammys have always served this function, giving viewers who usually listen to other genres a chance to sample the best of genres they might normally avoid, and bringing artists into the mass culture, assuming that's even still a thing.

And Lamar's Grammy performance was on fire. (Sometimes literally, as when he performed in front of a giant bonfire.) The performance was a blazingly political, entertaining show, which concluded with careful, perfect live-camera editing that alternated between three close-ups of Lamar from slightly different angles, making him look at once like three different people and like he was teleporting around the screen.

Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys
Camera tricks make Kendrick Lamar seem like he's teleporting.

If you didn't know who Kendrick Lamar was before that performance, you probably do now. It felt like the next leap up to another level of stardom, but for the fact that said next level might not even exist anymore.

The Grammys, then, serve two purposes — they're a nod toward something new and a look back at what's been. But at a time when "something new" is so disruptive to an industry that resists change more than most, is it any accident that the 2016 Grammys felt more like an empty pageant than ever before?

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