The old music institutions are losing their grip. The Super Bowl LIII halftime show February 3 was a bust because of a musicians’ boycott. And now musicians who matter are blowing off the Grammy Awards. Childish Gambino, Drake, Ariana Grande, and Kendrick Lamar have turned down the chance to perform at the 61st Grammy Awards on February 10. What’s going on?
The Super Bowl halftime show boycott was a matter of principle. Musicians such as Cardi B, Jay Z, and Rihanna boycotted the Super Bowl halftime show as a show of solidarity with embattled NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Grammys are about relevance.
The Grammys, run by the Recording Academy, call themselves the music industry’s highest honor. But the Grammys have demonstrated an astounding lack of relevance year after year. This is the institution that once awarded Best Rock & Roll Recording to “Winchester Cathedral” over the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” among other notable gaffes. In recent years, the Grammys have been taken to task for failing to recognize progressive music from women and people of color in its nominations and choice of performers during the telecast. In 2018, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow came under fire for making a condescending remark about women while at the same time the Recording Academy snubbed Lorde as a performer (even though she was up for Album of the Year), and Alessia Cara was the only solo female Grammy winner.
The lack of musical and cultural relevance has always earned the Grammys scorn from music and pop culture critics, and a number of musicians have skipped attending the ceremony in recent years. Turning down the chance to perform raises the stakes. In addition, Ariana Grande has torched the Grammys on Twitter, accusing show producer Ken Ehrlich of lying about her reasons for not performing.
Who can blame the musicians for skipping the Grammys? Artists build their fan bases on their own digital platforms, not at the Grammys. On digital, they can reach a more relevant audience that listens their music, attends their concerts, and buys their merchandise. Consider Ariana Grande. She dropped her new album, thank u, next, two days before the Grammys. You’d think a televised appearance before millions of people would be the perfect opportunity to promote her new music. But instead she just gave the Grammys a very public middle finger.
Ariana Grande doesn’t need the additional exposure. Her 294 million combined followers on Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, Twitter, and YouTube alone do a powerful job promoting thank u, next, and to a more relevant audience (compared to the 19.8 million who watched the Grammys on TV in 2018). She’s already dropped two singles from the album, one of which was her first-ever Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. She was the top-streamed female artist in 2018. Ticket sales for her Sweetener tour, launching in March, appear to be strong based on her adding shows. She’s headlining Coachella in April.
What would the Grammys do for Ariana Grande except associate her name with a stodgy, out-of-touch brand?
It will be interesting to see if more musicians avoid the institutions of yore such as the Academy Awards. But I wouldn’t count on any of the old-guard television events adapting. They’re using a playbook created last century. Meanwhile, the artists are creating a new game.