MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The 50th annual Grammy Award ceremony Sunday night is in Los Angeles. Promoters of the event are making a lot of the half-century anniversary. But over the years, Grammy voters have been widely ridiculed for choices that have made them seem out of touch with popular music.
The awards presenters insist those picks have gotten better but as Joel Rose reports, the change may have come too late for an industry that's in trouble.
JOEL ROSE: The Grammys started out as the music industry's answer to the Oscars. It was 1958, and rock 'n' roll was tearing up the charts. But at clubby awards banquets in New York and Beverly Hills, Grammy voters awarded album of the year to Henry Mancini.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. TOM O'NEIL (Blogger, Los Angeles Times): There was an outright conspiracy in those early Grammy years not to reward rock 'n' roll.
ROSE: Los Angeles Times blogger Tom O'Neil wrote a book about the Grammys. He notes that it would be 10 years before a rock record won Album of the Year.
(Soundbite of song, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band")
Mr. JOHN LENNON (Singer, The Beatles): (Singing) It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. They've been going in and out of style...
ROSE: Writer Tom O'Neil says that the Grammys did add a separate category to rock 'n' roll in 1970.
Mr. O'NEIL: Remember who the Grammys are: They're the industry establishment. So they're going to punish the hooligans at the door, and try to keep them out.
ROSE: And a lot of young fans noticed — including Sasha Frere-Jones, pop-music critic for The New Yorker magazine.
Mr. SASHA FRERE-JONES: They were corny. As a kid, I just got the impression that they didn't know what music was out there and also the performance itself, the show was just always so lame.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Now that they had finished counting, can't you feel the pressure mounting as that momentous moment draws near. You can almost taste the tension as we approach the record of the year.
ROSE: The 5th Dimension presented the Grammy for record of the year in 1971, the first year the awards were broadcast live on television. Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" was a reasonable choice, in hindsight. But the members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, who vote on the Grammys, have made some questionable decisions over the years — and not just the notorious Best New Artist Grammy they gave to the lip-syncers Milli Vanilli. The academy has never given a Grammy to Neil Young, The Who, Led Zeppelin, or The Kinks.
(Soundbite of song, "Tired of Waiting for You")
THE KINKS (Pop/Rock Group): (Singing) I'm so tired, tired of waiting, tired of waiting for you. I'm so tired, tired of waiting, tired of waiting for you.
Mr. NEIL PORTNOW (Chief executive Officer, Recording Academy): Undoubtedly, there'd be oversights, and there'd be lessons learned. And I think they have been.
ROSE: Neil Portnow is the Recording Academy's CEO.
Mr. PORTNOW: What we've tried to do is to make sure that we have a well-established, very broad-based, inclusive, and savvy voting population. These are peers of those that are being considered.
ROSE: Those voters are peers in the sense that they work in the music industry. But there are more than 12,000 voting members, who can cast ballots in a number of different categories. That's a key difference between the Grammys and the Oscars, where directors nominate directors, screenwriters nominate screenwriters, and so on. And there are fewer Oscars up for grabs. This year, the Grammys will hand out awards in 110 separate categories, from record of the year to best Hawaiian music album. That's made the Grammys an easy target for critics, including the Simpsons.
Mr. DAN CASTELLANETA (Voice Talent): (As Homer Simpson) We had fame and fortune. Now all we needed was the approval of record company low-lives.
Unidentified Man: And the Grammy for outstanding souls, spoken word or barbershop album of the year goes to The Be-Sharps.
(Soundbite of cheering)
ROSE: According to Academy CEO Neil Portnow claims he's never seen that episode. He says despite their stumbles, the Grammys remain the most coveted award in the business.
Mr. PORTNOW: You will always hear a musical artist who's either been nominated or received a Grammy as Grammy-nominated or Grammy-winning recording artist. And even following to the unfortunate time when there's a passing and an obituary. It's Grammy-winning artist so-and-so passed away today.
ROSE: But that may have as much to do with journalists needing an easy way to identify an artist as it does with the Grammys themselves. Awards like the Pulitzers and the Oscars are actively coveted in their fields. But three-time Grammy award winner Maynard James Keenan of the rock band Tool says the Grammy just doesn't have the same cachet.
Mr. MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN (Vocalist, Tool): It does give you a sense of a little pat on the back. But I don't think that musicians are catering their content to win a Grammy, it just doesn't come happening unlike the Oscars, where, you know, a studio will particularly hone a film to get that Oscar.
ROSE: When a movie wins the Oscar for Best Picture, it can be worth tens of millions of dollars to the studio that released it. The bounce from winning a Grammy is generally much smaller.
(Soundbite of song, "Not Ready To Make Nice")
THE DIXIE CHICKS (Country/Rock Music Trio): I'm not ready to make nice, I'm not ready to back down, I'm still mad as hell and I don't have time to go round and round and round. It's too late to make it right…
ROSE: The Dixie Chicks' members saw their album "Taking the Long Way" jump from number 72 to number 8 on the Billboard charts the week after they swept last year's awards. But that kind of impact is rare. And it may be the last time the Grammys will have such a dramatic effect. Total album sales dropped 15 percent last year, continuing a slide that started seven years ago.
New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones says more people are getting music for free online, either through an artist's MySpace page or from unauthorized file sharing.
Mr. FRERE-JONES: We're having, I think, a complete and total sort of paradigm shift. When it's really unnecessary to buy music, you know, that's something that record companies are struggling with that there's so much legal free music available, dot, dot, dot, you can fill in the rest.
ROSE: Frere-Jones says the Grammys are behind the curve once again, recognizing artists who sold a lot of CDs in 2007 while overlooking one of the most downloaded songs of the year, "Crank That" by Soulja Boy, who did not get nominated in the top categories.
(Soundbit of song, "Crank That"):
SOULJA BOY (Rapper): (Rapping) You. Soulja boy I tell 'em. Hey I got a new dance fo you all called the soulja boy. You. You gotta punch then crank back three times from left to right. Ah, you. Soulja boy off in this hoe. Watch me crank it, watch me roll. Watch me crank that soulja boy
ROSE: According to the Academy's CEO Neil Portnow insist Grammy Awards have survived other changes in how music reaches the consumer.
Mr. PORTNOW: Whether it was something that was on a vinyl disc, or something that was on a cassette, or on a 8-track — all of these things change but it doesn't have a tremendous impact on what we do. In terms of our recognition of great music every year, that really doesn't change very much for us.
ROSE: But 50 years on, the music industry may be changing so much that the Grammys won't have much choice but to pay attention.
For NPR news, I'm Joel Rose.