Monday, February 11, 2008

Great moments in Grammy history: An industry with its head in the sand

Anyone bored or depressed enough to have watched the Grammy Awards last night witnessed the “surprise” “upset” of Herbie Hancock taking album of the year over the presumed favorites Kanye West and Amy Winehouse. Kanye and Amy were two of 2007’s most critically acclaimed, commercially successful and closely watched performers, and represent important archetypes of current popular music: an innovative hip-hop auteur and a strong and individualistic young woman. As big stars who have a great deal of artistic credibility, Kanye and Amy fit those roles better than almost anyone last year. So one of them should have won, right?

They did win a number of awards: Kanye took four and Amy five. (Complete list.) But why did album of the year elude them? For the very reasons that you like them and pay attention to what they do: They are bold, creative artists who have colorful and unpredictable lives. And as always, the roughly 12,000 voting members of the Recording Academy — who are much older than the pop audience, and whose ranks swell with no-name songwriters, backup singers, engineers, etc., whose livelihoods depend on safe and orderly work routines — were too reluctant or scared or clueless to give Amy and Kanye their biggest endorsement. As was clear from the broadcast itself, the music industry needs its aging, doddering heroes, people whose seats in the pop-culture pantheon are safe; it’s an insecure cult in many ways, and its fear of the new has only gotten worse as the market for recorded music has rapidly been eroded.

Grammy history is rife with ridiculous victories of the conservative and mothballed over the young and vital: “Somewhere Out There” beats “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as song of the year in 1988, Lionel Richie’s “Can’t Slow Down” wins over “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Purple Rain” for album of the year in 1985, and so on. As Jon Pareles observed, “The album of the year award, as often happens — from Tony Bennett’s ‘MTV Unplugged’ to Natalie Cole’s ‘Unforgettable ... With Love’ to ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ — went to the album with the oldest and most familiar songs.”

This nostalgic escapism and willful incuriosity is more than just a once-a-year joke; it’s a disease that is eating the industry from the inside out. A few months ago Doug Morris, the chairman of Universal Music Group and perhaps the single most powerful figure in the music business, gave this preposterous interview to Wired magazine in which he claims he did not see the Internet revolution coming, and even as it was pounding at the door he had no idea what do to about it. “We didn’t know who to hire,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to recognize a good technology person — anyone with a good bullshit story would have gotten past me.”

Two weeks ago at the MIDEM conference in Cannes, Morris’s boss, Jean-Bernard Lévy of Vivendi, said that “today there is an exaggeration in the industry” and that his company remains “strongly attached” to CDs and the otherwise largely abandoned DRM. What he’s saying is that the biggest record company in the world is sticking with a digital security system that doesn’t work and a format whose sales have been dropping steadily since 2000. (Last year alone CD sales plunged almost 19 percent, and this year has started off miserably.)

In other words, ignore the here and now; don’t listen to what you can’t understand — don’t even try to understand it. Instead, cling to the comforts of the past and to an outmoded, self-destructive game plan. And when it comes to honoring the artists whose music pays your salary, put aside everything that says “this is what pop music sounds like now” and just give the trophy to Tony Bennett or Ray Charles or Herbie Hancock or whoever did the Starbucks duets record this year.

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