Why Are Movie Awards So Much Better Than Music Awards?

Why do music industry awards shows regularly ignore albums and artists beloved by knowledgeable music fans? Here are a few theories.

by John Norris
30 January 2015, 6:01am

Photo via Wikicommons

Last week, I cast my annual ballot in the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and as usual there were some tough calls: How to choose, for example, outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture when I had great ensembles like Birdman, Boyhood, and The Grand Budapest Hotel to pick from (Birdman won). Likewise, if I were voting in the upcoming Academy Awards, there would be some equally hard choices, because generally the greatest achievements in film—this year's sniping around Sniper and Selma notwithstanding—do in fact get nominated.

On the other hand, if I were a voting member of the Recording Academy, charged with casting a ballot for the Grammy Awards, I think I would often face the opposite problem—not enough worthy nominees. In this year's "top" Grammy category, Album of the Year, only Beyoncé's bold self-titled LP, easily her most interesting record to date, and Beck's Morning Phase have any business being in the running. Sam Smith may be the most gifted male pop vocalist to emerge in a generation—he's so award-friendly that he seems to have been crafted just for the purpose of collecting golden gramophones—but his album as a whole was underwhelming. And Pharrell Williams's Girl and Ed Sheeran's X? Classic cases of middling records by artists inoffensive enough to have become Recording Academy favorites.

Why do movie award ceremonies get it right so much more often than music awards do? You can quarrel with the whole concept of awards for art, period—plenty have and do for good reason—but that's a separate conversation. Awards exist. And among those that do exist, how is it that movie prizes regularly make credible choices, and music awards are so wildly off the mark? Here's what I think.

There's Too Much Music
According to the measurement company Rentrak (via the MPAA), somewhere between 600 and 700 movies are released in the US annually—659 in 2013, to be exact. Care to guess how many albums are released in the same amount of time? Try one hundred times that. Nielsen put the number of physical and digital album releases in 2010 at 75,000.

Since many awards require submission for consideration to be nominated, only a fraction of those films and records are really going to be contending. But according to the Recording Academy, somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 music releases are considered for Grammy nomination every year. That's exponentially more than the number of movies. That means that anyone hoping to do a credible, comprehensive job of honoring music is taking on a Herculean task.

Music Awards Are More Worried About Money and Youth
Most music awards don't even bother to try and be comprehensive or particularly credible, they just opt for mass appeal. The imperative to honor the familiar and the most commercial (and hence, most beloved by teens) is overwhelming. Many music awards—including the American Music Awards, CMT Awards, and NME Awards—are unabashed popularity contests that rely on votes from fans. The Billboard Music Awards are effectively the same thing, since they rely on the charts. Others, like the MTV Video Music Awards, BRITs, and Academy of Country Music Awards, use some combination of fans and "industry professionals" to determine their winners. The Grammys, of course, rely solely on an academy of voters (more on that below).

Very few such mass-appeal awards exist in film—you won't see Guardians of the Galaxy or The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 in contention for top honors at anything but the perennially goofy MTV Movie Awards. In fact, when this year's Oscar nominations were announced, a slew of thinkpieces were written about the dearth of big-box-office popcorn movies in the leading categories, as though that is the purpose of the Academy Awards—to maintain some sort of connection to Joe Multiplex. The bottom line: Movie awards are more concerned with achievement, music awards are all about connecting with a huge mass of fans.

Film Awards Have a Better Pool of Voters
Who better to bestow awards on you than your peers? That's the idea behind the DGA Awards, the SAG Awards, and the WGA Awards—directors, actors, and writers nominate and vote for those within their respective disciplines. Journalists and critics are in a good position to make informed decisions about film as well—think the National Board of Review, the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics' Awards, and so on.

But there are no comparable guild awards in music, and the closest thing to press awards would be prizes like Canada's media-determined Polaris Music Prize, or the UK's Mercury Prize, which is decided on by a panel of musicians, producers, and songwriters. The Oscars and Grammys are decided on by select academies of industry professionals who have either been invited to be members or applied to get in (unsurprisingly both are dominated by old white guys).

In the case of the Oscars, that occasionally may lead to something like Selma's lack of an acting or directorial nomination. As for the Grammys, you only need to consider the oft-noted fact that rap albums may get nominated for album of the year, but almost never win. Just ask Kendrick, Kanye, Wayne, and Eminem. It's been 11 years since a hip-hop record took the top Grammy—Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. But really, the Grammys' credibility problems go way beyond that.

Music Is an Increasingly Balkanized Field
The Golden Globes separate films into dramas and comedy/musicals, which spreads the wealth, brings in twice as many stars, and gives comedies a moment to shine. However, most movie awards don't distinguish between genres (except for docs and shorts). Naturally there are rom-com fans and biopic devotees, but no one gets that worked up over their favorite kind of movie.

Music, on the other hand, has always been a more divisive, tribal game, and music awards (even the crowd-pleasing ones) regularly divide the spoils between genres. This results in head-scratchers like Lorde's designation as a "rock" artist at several award shows last year. And then there's the Grammys, which never met a genre it didn't like. In the past 20 years, music's gotten more splintered than ever, thank you internet. Being an all-encompassing, all-embracing music awards show is nearly impossible in 2015. But damn if the Grammys don't try.

The music awards of record is how they seem to see themselves. The people behind the Grammys approach their task with a sense of self-importance and ambition unlike any other music awards show on the planet, wrapping their arms around no less than 83 categories (lean and mean, compared to the even more bloated 109 they were up to in 2011), from classical to R&B, spoken word to world, jazz, rock, pop, "traditional" pop and so many, many more. Recording Academy members are encouraged, though not required, to vote within their field of expertise—a fact that goes a little way toward explaining decades of oddities in nominations and wins too numerous to go into here.

Even when you dig into genres like dance and alternative, there's a mix of the credible-yet-predictable and the just plain inexplicable. And never forget the most confounding category of all the 83—the arrogantly named "Best New Artist," which nearly every year sees the nomination of an artist who won't seem new to anyone who cares about music. That delay can be blamed on the vague criteria: "For a new artist who releases, during the Eligibility Year, the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist." There's the rub. "Public identity"—whatever that means. This year's better-late-than-never best new artist nominee is HAIM, and I hope they win, though Sam Smith's probably got it in the bag (with an assist from Tom Petty).

That's the thing—the Grammys are still massively predictable. Years ago, when they awarded album of the year to the likes of Lionel Richie, Celine Dion, or Toto (look it up) the knock was that the awards were "out of touch" with what the kids were listening to. If they've made up some ground since on that score, and they have, there's still an undeniably clubby vibe to the whole thing, a feeling they are annually bestowing with self-satisfaction something of great consequence.

Television Makes Music Awards Dumber
Most of the music awards shows and some of the movie awards are broadcast on TV, which brings with it even a greater push for populism. And while the movie shows will fish for millennials by having, say, Channing Tatum as a presenter, or James Franco and Anne Hathaway as Oscar co-hosts in 2011, their options are somewhat limited. But the music awards? They simply go full-bore for the biggest and hottest performers of the moment—not just in terms of nominees and recipients, but in performers and presenters as well. These days, it's come to the point where, in a tradition started by the VMAs, non-nominated superstars with new records to sell are regularly booked to perform. Even the staid Grammys has picked up on the practice—Justin Timberlake two years ago, and Madonna this year.

The desire to appeal to television audiences not only impacts who presents and who performs, it also seems to impact who gets nominated for awards. A quick look at the review aggregator site Metacritic showcases the weight the Grammys appear to put on popularity over critical acclaim. The average score of the Grammy nominees for album of the year is 72. The average score for the eight Oscar nominees for best picture? A much more impressive 84.

The Metacritic movie of the year is Boyhood, with a perfect score of 100, while its closest apparent competitor in the Oscar race, Birdman, has a very strong 88. The top-scoring Metacritic Grammy Album of the Year nominee, Beyoncé, has an impressive 85 score, but Sam Smith's record only mustered a 62. A film with a 62 score wouldn't have a prayer of landing a top category Oscar bid.

Conversely, the top-grossing film of 2014, Transformers: Age of Extinction, with its dismal Metascore of 32, won't be getting near any major movie awards. But the top-grossing album of 2014, according to Billboard, is Taylor Swift's pop turn, 1989. And although its release date didn't qualify it for this year's Grammys, it's basically a shoo-in for an Album of the Year nod next year.

I get it—music awards, including the Grammys, don't only want to get it right. They want viewers. But it wouldn't kill the music industry to create one music awards show that really acknowledged achievement with as little regard for popularity as movie awards have. Surely we can have one ceremony that digs deep and honors the musical equivalent of a Birdman or Boyhood—like the brilliant War on Drugs' Lost in the Dream, Angel Olsen's Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Run the Jewels' RTJ2, or FKA twigs' mesmerizing debut LP2. Is that too much to ask?

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