How Grammys Voting Actually Works—and Where the Alleged Corruption Lies

The "secret committees" The Weeknd complained about are real—and according to critics, they're rife with foul play.
Drew Schwartz
Brooklyn, US
March 12, 2021, 10:08pm
The Weeknd
Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin / Getty Images

Despite dominating the charts with his 2020 album After Hours, The Weeknd didn't receive a single nomination for this year's Grammys. Reeling from that snub, he announced on Thursday that he will boycott the Grammys going forward, and accused the Recording Academy, which administers the awards, of corruption. “Because of the secret committees,” he said in a statement to the New York Times, "I will no longer allow my label to submit my music to the Grammys.”

For those who don't follow the Grammys closely, his claim that there are "secret committees" involved in the voting process might have come as a shock; it might even have sounded like a conspiracy theory. But those committees are real—and they're just one strange, clandestine part of a voting process that is largely shrouded in mystery.

While we don't know everything about how Grammy voting works, information from the Recording Academy, accounts from former voters, and investigative reporting from outlets like Rolling Stone have shed some light on the process. Below, we've compiled a step-by-step guide to how Grammy votes are cast and tabulated—and we've highlighted which aspects of the process allegedly allow for foul play.

Step 1: Submissions

Submissions for Grammy consideration come from two sources: Grammy voters and music companies. You have to apply to become a Grammy voter, and to be accepted, you have to meet at least one of the following four requirements, according to Vox:

  • Have been credited with 12 physical or digital tracks released online only and currently available for purchase, with at least one track in the past five years
  • Have six credits on commercially released tracks currently available for sale and distributed through physical distribution outlets (such as record stores), with at least one track in the past five years
  • Have won a Grammy before
  • Get an endorsement from a current voting member

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If you're accepted by the Recording Academy—and agree to pay the organization $100 a year in dues—you're allowed to vote in the Grammys and submit music for consideration, including your own, per the Grammys website. About 12,000 people are Grammy voters, according to Rolling Stone. The Recording Academy doesn't release their names. 

Just like individual voters, music companies—which the Recording Academy defines as "record labels, distribution companies, and management firms"—have to apply to be able to submit music for Grammy consideration. Those that are approved can put forward submissions, but they can't vote.

Step 2: Submission Review

Thousands of songs and albums get submitted for Grammy consideration each year. To help whittle down that pool of entries, the Recording Academy puts together various committees, who collectively review each submission and make sure it's actually eligible for the category to which it was submitted. These "review committees" are genre specific, and they're comprised of "experts" in that field of music, according to the Recording Academy. For example: The review committee for rap is made up of 10 or so rap artists, producers, journalists, radio DJs, and others who know the genre well. They listen to the music submitted for consideration in rap categories, and vote on whether it is, in fact, rap. If they decide it is rap, it will be considered in rap categories; if they decide it isn't, it won't. 

There are review committees for all 30 genres that are a part of the Grammys. These committees don't "make artistic or technical judgments about the recordings," according to the Recording Academy; instead, they "make sure that each entry is eligible and placed in its proper category." Or at least that's how it's supposed to work.

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This is the first stage in the Grammy voting process that, critics allege, might be subject to manipulation. According to Rob Kenner, who used to sit on a review committee, there's an "unwritten rule" at play in these discussions: "be careful about green-lighting an album by someone who [is] really famous if you don’t want to see that album win a Grammy."

"Famous people tend to get more votes from clueless Academy members, regardless of the quality of their work," Kenner wrote in Complex. "This is especially true in specialized categories like reggae and, to a lesser extent, hip-hop, where many voting members of the Recording Academy (who tend to skew older than the demographic for rap music) may not be well acquainted with the best releases in any given year. That's the reason why famous names like Marley, Toots, and Sly & Robbie stand a much better chance of winning in the reggae category than, say, Beres Hammond."

Music that should be eligible for consideration can get wrongfully cut during review. Maybe that's for the reason Kenner mentioned: to give less-popular work a better shot at winning. Or maybe it's more innocuous than that: Maybe the committee thinks a given song or album is technically rap when it's been submitted for consideration in R&B. It's a subjective call, one made without any real oversight.

Step 3: First-Round Voting

Once the review committees have finished their deliberations, the songs and albums they deem eligible are placed on a ballot. That ballot then goes out to Grammy voters, who select their top choice for several categories—but not all of them.

Voters can only weigh in on a maximum of 15 categories, plus the "big four": Record Of The Year, Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year, and Best New Artist, according to the Recording Academy. They're encouraged to vote solely on categories in which they are authorities. (If you don't listen to any R&B, for instance, you shouldn't vote on the year's best R&B album.) But there's nothing actually prohibiting them from voting for whatever they want. 

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"I refrained from voting in heavy metal and classical because I know very little about those genres," Kenner, who was once a Grammy voter, wrote in Complex. "But I could have if I wanted to, and that strikes me as a problem."

Voters submit their ballots through an online portal, and all of those ballots are turned over to Deloitte. The company tabulates the ballots and determines the top 20 entries in each category, based on the number of votes they receive. Then something strange happens.

Step 4: Nominations Review 

You'd think that the top 20 entries in each category would be the nominees; that those nominees would be placed on a final ballot; and that those final ballots would be given to the voters, who would cast their vote for the winner of each category. In 12 out of the Grammys' 84 categories, that's the way it works. For the rest, however, it's a different story. 

In 59 categories—including the big four—"nominations review committees" take a look at the top 20 entries, then whittle those entries down to about seven or eight nominees, according to Billboard. The identities of the individuals who make up these committees, all of whom are Grammy voters, are kept confidential. These are the "secret committees" the Weeknd is ostensibly talking about.

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According to the Recording Academy, each nomination review committee is given a list of the 20 finalists in their category, which is organized in alphabetical order. They then listen to that music, and choose the nominees "based solely on the artistic and technical merits of the eligible recordings," a Grammys spokesperson told Rolling Stone. The reason the review committee members' identities are kept secret, the Recording Academy's Senior Vice President of Awards Bill Freimuth told Rolling Stone, is to protect them. 

"It’s really for their own privacy reasons," he told Rolling Stone. "We don’t want them to be lobbied from outside people. We absolutely know that would happen. That’s the main reason. But also, it’s to protect their own privacy in general. We don’t want people to be pointed at if some particular artist didn’t get a nomination, and we don’t want people pointed at if some particular artist did get a nomination, leading to ‘This is your fault’ or ‘We owe you dinner.'"

This is where critics say the heart of the alleged corruption within the Grammys lies. The nomination review committees are built on the honor system: The Academy trusts those involved to leave personal and professional ties at the door, and select nominees based solely on merit. But there's room for individual committee members' allegiances to influence which artists they push for—especially when a nomination can lead to a serious financial windfall. Some 2018 Grammy winners saw their album sales jump by more than 100 percent after they received their awards, Rolling Stone reports. "In the frenetic data-obsessed age of digital music," the outlet wrote, "such numbers are an opportunity simply too good to pass up."

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Academy insiders have said that kind of corruption happens all too often. In an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint she filed against the Recording Academy, Deborah Dugan—the Academy's former CEO, who was ousted after five months on the job—claimed that the nomination review process is rigged.

"Members of the board [of trustees] and the secret committees chose artists with whom they have personal or business relationships," Dugan wrote. "It is not unusual for artists who have relationships with Board members and who ranked at the bottom of the initial 20-artist list to end up receiving nominations." 

Dugan isn't the only person who's levied that accusation. In an investigation of nomination review committees, Rolling Stone reported that "multiple sources close to the situation… know of members of the review committees who’ve advocated for certain artists due to personal or professional bias." Additionally, the committees "regularly shoehorn in artists who are not in the initial top 20 selected by the voting membership," sources told Rolling Stone. The way they allegedly do that is by exploiting a rule that allows nomination review committees to add up to two nominees that don't appear in the top 20 lists they receive from voters—a rule the Academy acknowledges exists. That said, committee members can't add additional nominees in the big four categories, Freimuth told Rolling Stone.

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It's impossible to know for sure whether members of review committees push for nominations that stand to benefit them, their friends, or their business partners financially; the details of those deliberations are kept completely under wraps. But it's clear that there's potential for the system to be exploited.

One final note on this: Along with nomination review committees, the Grammys use "craft committees" to help determine nominees for more obscure categories, like album notes, engineering, and arranging. In seven categories, the final nominees are determined by craft committees, Billboard reports; in six categories, Grammy voters don't weigh in at all—instead, craft committees pick the first and final nominees. 

Step 5: Final Voting 

Once the nominees in each category have been named—either directly by voters, by craft committees, or by nomination review committees—final ballots go back out to Grammy voters. They then cast their vote for the winners. The ballots get handed over to Deloitte, which determines which nominees have received the largest number of votes. The top vote-getters are declared the winners. According to the Recording Academy, only Deloitte knows who those winners are. The verdict in each category is placed in a sealed envelope, which remains unopened until the result is read out, publicly, during the awards ceremony.

One by one, the winners take the stage. No one save the committee members—not the viewers at home, not the Grammy voters, not even the artists themselves—knows if they got there fairly.

Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.