Sometime in the summer of 2013, I decided to join The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), AKA The Academy®. I had heard it was a great way to network with other local musicians – including Seattle’s own Grammy®-winning writers, producers and artists like Sir Mix-A-Lot, Eric Tingstad and Sue Ennis.
Then, in the fall, on a lark, I decided to see what it was like to submit my music for the 56th (as they call it) Grammys. Just for fun, mind you, and to learn. I have no delusions of grandeur left about the music industry. Well, maybe a few.
The Grammys are the biggest honor in music you can get. I thought it would be interesting to participate in the process and see how it really works first hand, for an indie and from the inside. No PR machine, no label, no manager.
First, I did some research on indie artists who have gotten nominated. There’s been a lot of controversy in recent years, with EDM artist Al Walser and Americana artist Linda Chorney top of mind. This post is not about the controversy of the voting process, however. Believe it or not, this post isn’t even going to cite Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, although Seattle’s own hometown indie artists were nominated for seven (seven!) Grammys, in case you’ve been living under a rock this year.
What is most interesting to me are two things I discovered.
One is a shift, at least for the indie artists, away from the private Grammy365 website to social media sites like Facebook to promote their nominations. Social media is having an effect even on crusty and fairly closed organizations in the music industry like NARAS.
Second is the sheer explosion in both the number of Academy members and number of submissions for nomination, as more and more amateur recording artists and producers have begun creating and marketing their music. This has created not only technical issues for the Academy and its members’-only website, Grammy365.com, but it has also made the annual listening and promotional process within the voting members much more challenging.
The Pinnacle Of Musical Achievement
If your dream is to be recognized as a musician, what better goal (besides perhaps playing Madison Square Garden or The Hollywood Bowl) is there than winning a Grammy?
I also wanted to share some of the practical things I took away from the experience as an indie artist, in case you are an artist who is considering submitting. Despite the very long odds against an indie artist winning a Grammy, I think there are some real benefits to both joining the Academy and also submitting your music. Certainly if you make it past the first round and get nominated, it is a huge PR win for an indie artist and great bragging rights, even if you don’t get the final award. I don’t recommend using Grammy controversy as a marketing technique, but getting nominated by your peers is nonetheless a big honor. A Grammy still means something in the music industry, despite the big label PR machines that, no doubt, go to work on behalf of major artists to secure their nominations and wins.
In addition to my own observations from the experience, I also interviewed three other indie artists, two of whom – Lorraine Feather and Christian Tumalan from Pacific Mambo Orchestra – made it past the first round and are on the official ballots for Best Jazz Vocal Album and Best Tropical Music Album. The final artist I interviewed is my friend, vocalist Jody Quine, who, like me, submitted but didn’t get on the final ballot.
I’d also like to credit my friend Elizabeth Butler, who has been a NARAS voting member since 2006. She talked up the Academy to me as a great place to meet other indie artists. She has submitted her music several times and has also attended the awards ceremony in LA. She really was the one who got me interested in researching the idea of indies submitting for the Grammys, and what effect the process might have on an artists’ marketing efforts.
Joining The Academy Is Not Necessarily A Simple Thing, But It’s So Worth It
In order to submit your music for a Grammy, you must first be a member of The Recording Academy. You can be either an associate (non-member) member or a voting member to submit, but only voting members can vote. In order to qualify as a voting member of NARAS, you must have 12 documentable released song credits, at least one of which was within the last five years. Physical CD liner notes or the Allmusic database (powered by Rovi) are the only validation methods. So, indies, make sure your metadata is entered correctly! I have not yet been able to secure my voting membership (I’m still Associate, but hoping to resolve this shortly) because my metadata song credits are not showing up properly for my old CDs, and my new one is taking a long time to be validated because it is digital only. So make sure you press a physical CD with liner notes – and then submit it to Allmusic.
Even if you don’t submit for a Grammy, being an Associate member is still awesome. The local Chapters (mine is Pacific Northwest) offer great networking opportunities and private events, from parties to conferences.
Facebook, Indies And The 56th Grammys in 2013
The Grammy people yet don’t realize this, I think, but their private member website, Grammy365.com, was made largely obsolete this year. It is, unfortunately, a cumbersome and slow private social networking site designed to allow members to showcase their music and solicit other members to vote for them via a private, custom-designed messaging interface.
While not as bad as the Healthcare.gov website debacle, it wasn’t pretty. The website was clearly not built to handle multiple messages from 20,000 members, although only a fraction of all the NARAS members are actually active. It couldn’t even handle the fraction. It was slow and painful to navigate. This year, the Academy announced new rules restricting how many messages members could send on the site per day. I think it was a website capacity issue, but it irritated some of the more “active” members.
A great deal of this year’s socializing and promotion, at least between indie artists, moved to Facebook. I was invited to two private Facebook groups, one called The G Party! and the other called The G Club. They seem to have overlapping memberships. While I also continued to receive messages on Grammy365.com, there was a lot more action on Facebook in these two private groups, and frankly, it was so much easier to communicate there. There are clear rules about not trying to conspire to fix votes or make special voting agreements between members, and the members who started the Facebook groups were very good about posting and clarifying the rules. I thought it was a very cordial and social process. Sure, some people promoted their albums or songs a bit too much on the Facebook groups, but people were so cool about cheering each other on, especially after the first round results were announced and there were some of our new Facebook friends on the ballot!
The Power of The Personal Pitch
Some of the musicians who I found most charming were ones who private-messaged me on Facebook, like Laura Sullivan (an indie artist who was nominated in the New Age category), asked for my mailing address, and actually sent me a physical autographed CD in the mail. Way to go, Laura, I think your marketing tactics were excellent – and they worked! While I couldn’t vote, clearly others listened to your music and voted for you!
To be clear, in some categories (like Best Remix), the general membership is not allowed to vote at all in the first round, it’s determined by committee. Committees are also involved in the voting processes in other categories, especially very large ones (a few categories have thousands of entries!). I can’t say much here, since I didn’t have any visibility into this committee process.
Suffice to say, it is somewhat controversial among some members, as they view it as an effort to exclude indies from the final ballots. I don’t know one way or another, so I can’t comment. I would guess, again, that the sheer number of submissions has begun to make the winnowing down process quite difficult, and committees are one way to efficiently address this.
Categories and Album and Artist Names
While there are indie artists who made it onto the ballots, they were few in number. Tactically, it seems a lot more likely to be nominated as an indie if you submit for a less crowded category, like Children’s Music or New Age. The categories I submitted my album for (Best New Artist and Best Rock Album) were hopelessly crowded with thousands of entries.
Because I was not a voting member this year, I didn’t actually see either the second or first ballot, but my friends told me it was overwhelming to try and attempt to listen to all the songs in some categories on the first ballot.
It might not hurt to name your band and your song with letters at the beginning of the alphabet either. Let’s just say, I was considering that my album name, Zombie Lover, probably didn’t get it a lot of listens. And my artist name, Solveig & Stevie – same thing. Too far down the list in an already crowded field.
All of this aside, I met some really talented artists who were also nice people through both Grammy365.com and the two private Facebook groups. I hope to continue to grow those acquaintances and perhaps even turn some of them into music business associates. As an indie artist, I feel networking is key. You never know what opportunties your peers may offer you in the future.
The Interviews With Lorraine Feather, Christian Tumalan and Jody Quine
Q1. As an artist, in what way(s) do you feel the Grammy submission, promotion and nomination process have most helped advance your music career?
Lorraine Feather: I would say that generally, the better known I am as a recording artist, the more likely I am to be hired as a lyricist or booked as a performer, though the former has brought in more income over time. I have been brought in to work on theatre projects in development, have written lyrics for animation, for the Olympics; every single job I’ve had can be traced, one way or another, to having done my own releases as an artist. My collaborator Eddie Arkin and I were commissioned to do a song for a major movie that’s supposed to start filming in early 2014. One never knows about these things, of course, but the famous actor/director who bought the song is someone I had been sending my albums to for years, as I worked on a soundtrack of his as a singer.
Christian Tumalan of Pacific Mambo Orchestra: Definitely the opportunity of networking with people like you who are doing music (great music). There are tons of very good music out there that, during this Grammy season, we had the chance to absorb, learn about and learn the new pathways music is taking.
Jody Quine: I don’t even know that I’ve discovered the full extent of the positives yet. The most exciting part for me at this point is how many talented people I’ve met that are also making music and supporting other musicians. I have discovered a pretty special community. I’m not sure if it’s always like that but at this point there is a functioning community of wonderful people not out to compete or win but to champion those who are breaking through. It’s really something.
Q2. Have there been any unexpected or hidden benefits, special opportunities, or important relationships that have directly resulted from your nomination(s)?
Lorraine Feather: Not exactly, it’s more a question of my becoming better known as a result of them, slowly but surely.
Christian Tumalan of Pacific Mambo Orchestra: Yes, media exposure, CD sales. Our record reached the front page of iTunes at the peak of December season, right next to Beyonce! Interaction with musicians that are in the same genre has been another benefit.
Jody Quine: The biggest surprise so far has literally been the new community of support I find myself a part of. I’m heading to LA for Grammy week and already have some excellent meetings and parties to attend all stemming from my new friends and contacts.
Q3. Do you feel the peer nomination process of the Grammys is different from submitting for other competitions or awards?
Lorraine Feather: I have not entered many competitions so I can’t say. With many categories in the Grammy process, you need to be in the Top 15 or sometimes I think it’s the Top 30, in raw votes, then a committee picks the final nominees. My opinion is that if the committee is knowledgeable in their area, it’s a decent system. If it were raw vote all the way for, say, Jazz Instrumental Solo, the public might tend to vote on name recognition. There have been Best Jazz Vocal nominees the general public might never have heard of, like Norma Winstone and Kate McGarry, who are fantastic but not household names, nor do they campaign vigorously on the Grammy members’ website, Grammy 365.
Christian Tumalan of Pacific Mambo Orchestra: Each portal has its own mechanics. The Academy has definitely a very solid base in the process of submitting material. American Grammys have a good reputation because of their veracity.
Jody Quine: I haven’t really submitted for anything else but I think being recognized by your peers is a really special opportunity. The struggle of course is, being heard by your peers as there are literally THOUSANDS of voting members so essentially only the bigger artists who have been heard rise to the top. Personally, though I look forward to the challenge in coming years, as I will submit again.
Q4. What do you feel has been the key to your success in moving past the initial round in the nominations process?
Lorraine Feather: Getting into the Top 15 means that enough voters have heard you , one way or the other, and like you, to get you there. My music is not “straight-ahead” jazz. One reviewer after the next has noted that it’s a hybrid form (the genres I’ve seen mentioned most have been classical, pop, and folk or Appalachian). I have gotten a gratifying amount of favorable press, so I contact Grammy voters and give them a link with MP3s to either stream or download, also song comments, lyrics and reviews, and also post it on Grammy365. I get enough radio play to chart on Jazz Week, but not nearly as much as a lot of other jazz artists, because of the nature of what I do and the nature of jazz radio, so I can’t rely on that for them to know me. Above and beyond adding NARAS contacts and keeping in touch, I try and do the best album I can, something my co-writers and co-producers and I feel excited about, and let the chips fall where they may.
Christian Tumalan of Pacific Mambo Orchestra: Definitely having a good sounding CD. As a producer I always make sure that all aspects of the production satisfy today market’s needs but are original at the same time. The rest is constantly pushing promotion and giving people a good reason to approach our record.
Q6: For those indie artists considering becoming a member of NARAS and entering their music next year, do you think it is better strategically to submit for a more niche category likely to have fewer entries, or does it not matter?
Lorraine Feather: Since my music would not go anywhere than jazz, I never considered it. I think that is the prevailing (obvious) wisdom, though—that it’s best to submit in a category with fewer entries. But you have to keep in mind that you may be moved into another one. I saw that happen with quite a few submission that the artists were promoting in a particular category until the first ballot came out and they learned they were not in it anymore.
Christian Tumalan of Pacific Mambo Orchestra: It doesn’t matter But you have to be clever on which categories you decide to submit your material.
Jody Quine: If winning is the goal, and your music is in a niche category it is most definitely the way to go. The major categories are packed with mainstream artists so the competition is fierce as you’re not just competing with well know names but the machines that support them. The machines being FULL of voters as well, all wanting to be on a winning team, which of course would lead to more record sales and success for their artists, so it’s an uphill battle as an independent for sure. It didn’t stop me from trying however!
Q6. Do you have any other advice for artists who submit their music for Grammy consideration?
Lorraine Feather: First off, you hopefully have an artistic creation that pleases you, that is the best example of what you as an individual are capable of. Someone once said to me, “Find out what you do best, and do it to death.” Once you’ve done that, you need to politely and consistently make as many voting members aware of your work as you can. Personally, I do not like getting multiple-recipient email on Grammy 365 and sometimes don’t bother opening them, because they default to Reply All and everyone has to read everyone else’s feedback. I take the extra time to do it one by one. Also, having personal email contact with other artists is an excellent thing if they’re willing to communicate that way, or you can add them on Facebook.
Christian Tumalan of Pacific Mambo Orchestra: To keep the hope and don’t be intimidated by major labels. Indie artists are gaining more recognition nowadays.
Jody Quine: There are a handful of places where the independent musicians who are also voting members of NARAS are also getting to know one another. I think it’s key to start connecting with your fellow voters right away. I feel 100% it should be authentic interactions when you’re networking but creating these relationships are key to getting your music heard. The first round ballot can sometimes have over 500 names in a category and any opportunity you have for your name to pop out is important.
Q6. Thanks so much, Lorraine, Christian and Jody! Where can we learn more about you and hear your latest release?
Lorraine Feather: You can hear samples of my new album, Attachments, on http://www.lorrainefeather.com/attachments and if you’re a NARAS member, the album will be streaming on the site in the Best Jazz Vocal category till the ballots are due on January 8th!
Christian Tumalan of Pacific Mambo Orchestra: http://www.pacificmambo.com
What do you think of the Grammy process? Are you a member? What do you think of indie artists who have been nominated for Grammys? Please leave your thoughts and feedback in the comments section below.