Is the Music Industry Ready Move the Grammys to Atlanta?
By Bill Werde / Billboard
The Recording Academy has a moment “Own your moment.”
When Rico Brooks, the manager for top hip-hop producers including Metro Boomin (Migos’ “Bad and Boujee,” Post Malone’s “Congratulations,” 21 Savage’s “Bank Account,” to name a few) came to speak to the Bandier music business program in Syracuse late last year, this was his advice to the 150 gathered students. He meant it through the lens of artistry: when you have one of those moments when the planets align and fans and the music industry alike deign to stop and actually care about your art? You better be smart. These moments don’t always come. And they come again even less frequently. So make them count.
After class, I took our speaker out for drinks, as I’m wont to do, with a question on my mind:
Was Atlanta as a whole owning its moment? Hip-hop and R&B are now the most popular genres in America. These songs and artists are driving the music business. And who is driving hip-hop and R&B? I can’t see a stronger argument than Atlanta.
Look at the current Billboard Hot 100 chart. Two of the top three songs have Atlanta talent front and center: Young Thug co-writing and rapping on Camila Cabello’s “Havana” in the top spot, and 21 Savage at No. 3 on Post Malone’s “Rockstar.” But Atlanta is all over the top 20, from Migos (two songs) to Future (as featured on Taylor Swift’s “End Game”). And we still haven’t mentioned Metro, who produced “Bad and Boujee” and a fistful of other top 10 hits. Or Gucci Mane. Or … you get the point.
So why not move the Grammys to Atlanta? If it can move to New York City, it can certainly move elsewhere. Atlanta has hosted the Olympics, and will host the Super Bowl next year. There’s no question it has the infrastructure to support the event. Hell, given the Georgia Music Tax Credit that the Recording Academy and Georgia Music Partners just helped to pass, it’s a good bet that the Grammys would recoup some of the reported millions that they lost by moving the event to NYC.
But there are bigger reasons than finance and logistics. The challenges that the Recording Academy has had with the hip-hop and R&B communities are well-documented. As far back as 1989, Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff refused to attend and accept their award for best rap performance when they learned the new category wouldn’t be televised. And only one rap album, Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, has won album of the year. Every year, someone doesn’t win a Grammy that many people believe should, but this criticism has been especially sharp — and arguably well-grounded — within the hip-hop and R&B communities. Three Grammys ago, you had Beck (!) beating Beyoncé for album of the year. Then it was Taylor Swift over Kendrick Lamar. Last year you had the spectacle of Adele saying from the stage that her album of the year trophy was rightfully Beyoncé’s. Did I mention Beck beating Beyoncé? I mean, come on.
It’s worth seeing this moment that Atlanta is experiencing in the context of broader moments of reckoning for the broader entertainment industry and society as a whole. Status quos of all sorts — but especially those that are white and/or male — are being challenged to rethink their histories, dynamics and policies. As Jermaine Dupri told me when I reached out to him, “Every major music company in New York and Los Angeles has a version in Nashville. These people believe in Atlanta for its culture but not its economic power.” Dupri, of course, produced a string of top 10s for the likes of Usher and Mariah Carey as he ran his So So Def company out of Atlanta in the ’90s and 2000s. He was actually recruited and served as president of the Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy in the early 2000s.
The majors used to have physical distribution centers in Atlanta that doubled as offices for local executives. Those all went away in the financial carnage of the last 15 years. But the music business is growing again, and it’s time to revisit these decisions. Given the new tax credits — by all accounts, similar credits spurred exponential growth for the film industry in Atlanta — the time is right for the majors to invest in real infrastructure in the South, and especially in hip-hop.
Dupri said the Recording Academy had the same membership issues 15 years ago. He went to national retreats and met the leaders of the other 11 chapters: “The people that I saw that made me feel comfortable were Jimmy Jam, my engineer Phil Tann, Nile Rodgers… But I didn’t see anyone who was remotely my peer or my competition on the board of the Grammys. No one who was right in hip-hop at the time. No one with a No. 1 record.”
I am not here to write another flame-throwing “Grammys don’t get hip-hop” or “Grammys have a race problem” piece. For all of its faults — perceived and real — the Grammys are my favorite night in music. I have been a longtime supporter and public advocate for the Recording Academy, as well as their incredible and essential MusiCares foundation. When Academy president Neil Portnow reached his 10th year of service to the Academy, I personally conducted the interview that ran in Billboard. It was under my guidance and outreach in 2013 that Billboard and the Recording Academy partnered on the creation of the annual Power 100 event that has become a highlight of Grammy week. These are people I consider to be friends. And there is a nuanced discussion worth having as a broader industry — one that I think is missed in many of the understandably frustrated pieces already published.
One discussion is obviously about race. Portnow did an interview with Pitchfork last year, the day after the Adele/Beyoncé telecast. He unequivocally addressed a question about race: “I don’t think there’s a race problem at all. Remember, this is a peer-voted award. So when we say the Grammys, it’s not a corporate entity — it’s the 14,000 members of the Academy.”
I don’t say this to be pithy or glib. But if the headlines of the past year have entrenched in me any one, single belief, it’s the relative implausibility that any group of 14,000 Americans doesn’t have a race problem. It’s semantic, but it’s also the point. A “race problem” in this case is unlikely overt racism. But it’s people, likely even well-intentioned, who remain a little too unaware of or too comfortable with what it means to be the status quo. Of how “the way things are” will simply self-perpetuate until an institution takes urgent and material strides to create certainty beyond certainty that just results will be accomplished. The Recording Academy began some major staff changes a few years ago that have resulted in a more diverse leadership body. This in turn has led directly to some of the progress I’ll discuss in a bit. But obviously, there is still a long way to go.
The other nuanced discussion is around process — the process by which rules are changed within the Recording Academy, by which members are accepted and vetted, and by which leaders are elected. Because knowing, as I do, the work that’s been done behind the scenes, and the quality of character of the people driving slow, sometimes painful change within the Recording Academy, these are the details where the devil resides.
The National Board of Trustees is the most powerful body in the Recording Academy — Portnow reports to them. Four elected officers and forty trustees who make the rules. And by the accounts of people close to the decision-making process, they have at times been slow, and highly protective of the status quo. That said, it may surprise you, as it did me, to learn how much progress has been made — policy changes and votes by the trustees that haven’t made headlines.