Grammy Talk with Bill Freimuth

FreimuthGrammy season is here, and who better to discuss the awards process and some of this year’s nominees than Bill Freimuth, Senior VP of the Recording Academy’s Awards Department.

Q: There seems to be a lot of positive feedback regarding this year’s Grammy nominees. To what do you attribute that?

A: Partly, I think because it is a really good year in music. If you look at the Rap genre this year for instance, there are some great albums that didn’t make the list, simply because there were a number of great albums that were made in that genre. I think it was really tough for our voters to narrow it down to just a particular five. It’s really hard to deny that the albums voted upon were among the best albums made this year. I think we saw that in Dance music, Rock music and pretty much across the board. I’ve done several interviews since the nominations announcement and at least three of the articles read something like, ‘Why the nominations don’t suck this year.” [laughs]

58th-Grammy-featureLooking at this year’s nominations, would you say there’s been more of a conscious effort towards youth relevancy?

I’d say there has been but I would preface it by saying there’s always been a discussion about how we need to be more diverse, younger, etc. I do feel like in the last year or two, we’ve figured out ways to do that on a more practical level. For instance, we have work groups, a collaboration between the Awards and Member Services departments where we try to encourage the music makers and the real movers and shakers in those genres, to participate more, become members if they aren’t already and to vote. We have to ensure their voices are heard on who gets nominated and who wins these awards.

Do you see this as a turning of the page from recent veteran winners such as U2, Herbie Hancock or Tony Bennett?

What we’re really looking for are the best recordings of the year. If they happen to be by a legacy artist or a heritage artist, that’s great. If it’s somebody’s first album and it’s really great then they should get the award. That’s what it comes down to. Of course it’s very difficult and it’s all subjective.

Were you surprised by the 11 Kendrick Lamar nominations?

I can’t say I was really surprised. It’s such a great project that’s been critically and popularly acclaimed. There are two things working here. No one would deny that it’s a great album. Kendrick dug really deep to pull off this album and it’s the work of a true artist. The other thing worth mentioning is not all of Kendrick’s nominations were in the Rap field. They are spread among other categories. He did some remarkable collaborations with a lot of people such as Taylor Swift, he’s in the video category and he’s been nominated for songwriting.

Talk a bit about the Urban Contemporary category, a category perhaps confusing to some in the recent past but by default recognizes the youth movement in urban music.

In some ways that’s kind of how and why this category exists…explicitly mixing influences from Hip-Hop, EDM, Pop and a forward-thinking sensibility towards R&B music. It’s logical that it’s going to be younger artists who create that. It’s really nice to see some of them making the best music and getting recognized for it.

The Urban Contemporary is an album category. Considering that we’re in a singles-driven world now, do you find it ironic that numerically there are still plenty of good full-length projects to be recognized?

Frankly, it’s tough and something we’ve grappled with over the last few years; this whole notion of singles and tracks versus albums. There’s a whole contingency that believes the album is dead and we should only be rewarding work on singles, while other people say we should be rewarding an entire body of work which shows more depth than just one hit song. I don’t think we’re going to see this play out soon, to be honest. It’s one of the challenges we face with a rapidly changing industry.

Give us your thoughts on these popular omissions: no Best New Artist nod for Leon Bridges, and no nominations for rapper Future, Jill Scott or Janet Jackson.

Janet came out in early October [just days after deadline] which puts her in the mix for next year. Future and Jill Scott picked a really tough year to release really good albums. The competition was stiff this year. It doesn’t mean that they’re underserving. My guess about Leon Bridges is that he didn’t quite break wide enough to get the recognition from our general voting body. Leon is a real artist who’s going to be around for a while. He’ll find himself in the mix, I’m sure.

What special challenges did the Academy have, if any, during the nominations process?

The screening process was more challenging in some of the rooms this year because more and more artists, whether purposely or not, are blending their genres. You’re seeing it especially with Hip-Hop and Dance; even Country music with an artist like Sam Hunt who clearly has an urban music influence. Look at all of the Pop songs that have a Dance influence. We noticed this year that Jazz had a much larger R&B influence. The challenges to draw those lines between and among categories are harder than ever. We got over 21,000 entries this year. It’s not a record but close.

What are your thoughts on Lionel Richie being named 2016 Musicares Person of the Year [Event Date: February 13, 2016]?

Lionel is a legend and an amazing singer-songwriter, the type of individual that Musicares usually likes to recognize at its Person of the Year events.

Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?

We want all of our voters to vote and to watch the show on February 15. Voting is something we take very seriously here. It’s one of the real privileges of being a member of the Academy and everything hinges on what boxes are checked on those ballots. Hopefully, what we hear back from people about the telecast on February 16 is that, ‘They didn’t suck!’