As mentioned on Brooklyn Vegan today, record exec Steve Stoute‘s bought ad space and placed a letter in the NY Times on Sunday. Stoute criticizes the Grammy’s for their choice of Arcade Fire for Album of the Year.
FROM STEVE STOUTE:
In this Sunday’s New York Times, I have purchased a full-page ad as an open letter to Neil Portnow, NARAS and the Grammy Awards. Here’s why.Over the course of my 20-year history as an executive in the music business and as the owner of a firm that specializes in in-culture advertising, I have come to the conclusion that the Grammy Awards have clearly lost touch with contemporary popular culture. My being a music fan has left me with an even greater and deeper sense of dismay — so much so that I feel compelled to write this letter. Where I think that the Grammys fail stems from two key sources: (1) over-zealousness to produce a popular show that is at odds with its own system of voting and (2) fundamental disrespect of cultural shifts as being viable and artistic.
As an institution that celebrates artistic works of musicians, singers, songwriters, producers and technical specialists, we have come to expect that the Grammys upholds all of the values that reflect the very best in music that is born from our culture. Unfortunately, the awards show has become a series of hypocrisies and contradictions, leaving me to question why any contemporary popular artist would even participate. How is it possible that in 2001 The Marshall Mathers LP — an album by Eminem that ushered in the Bob Dylan of our time — was beaten out by Steely Dan (no disrespect) for Album Of The Year? While we cannot solely utilize album sales as the barometer, this was certainly not the case. Not only is Eminem the best-selling artist of the last decade, but The Marshall Mathers LP was a critical and commercial success that sold over 10 million albums in the United States (19 million worldwide), while Steely Dan sold less than 10% of that amount and came and went as quietly as a church mouse. Or consider even that in 2008 at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards, after going into the night as the most-nominated artist, Kanye West’s Graduation was beaten out for Album Of The Year by Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters. (This was the first time in 43 years that a jazz album won this category.) While there is no doubt in my mind of the artistic talents of Steely Dan or Herbie Hancock, we must acknowledge the massive cultural impact of Eminem and Kanye West and how their music is shaping, influencing and defining the voice of a generation. It is this same cultural impact that acknowledged the commercial and critical success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1984.
Just so that I’m not showing partiality to hip-hop artists (although it would be an entirely different letter as to how hip-hop music has been totally diminished as an art form by this organization), how is it that Justin Bieber, an artist that defines what it means to be a modern artist, did not win Best New Artist? Again, his cultural impact and success are even more quantifiable if you factor in his YouTube and Vevo viewership — the fact that he was a talent born entirely of the digital age whose story was crafted in the most humble method of being “discovered” purely for his singing ability (and it should be noted that Justin Bieber plays piano and guitar, as evidenced on his early viral videos).
So while these very artists that the public acknowledges as being worthy of their money and fandom are snubbed year after year at the Grammys, the awards show has absolutely no qualms in inviting these same artists to perform. At first I thought that you were not paying attention to the fact that the mental complexion of the world is becoming tanned, that multiculturalism and poly-ethnicity are driving new meaning as to what is culturally relevant. Interesting that the Grammys understands cultural relevance when it comes to using Eminem’s, Kanye West’s or Justin Bieber’s name in the billing to ensure viewership and to deliver the all-too-important ratings for its advertisers.
What truly inspired the writing of this letter was that this most recent show fed my suspicions. As the show was coming to a close and just prior to presenting the award for Album Of The Year, the band Arcade Fire performed “Month of May” — only to… surprise… win the category and, in a moment of sheer coincidence, happened to be prepared to perform “Ready to Start.”
Does the Grammys intentionally use artists for their celebrity, popularity and cultural appeal when they already know the winners and then program a show against this expectation? Meanwhile the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences hides behind the “peer” voting system to escape culpability for not even rethinking its approach.
And I imagine that next year there will be another televised super-close-up of an astonished front-runner as they come to the realization before a national audience… that he or she was used.
You are being called to task at this very moment, NARAS.
And to all of the artists that attend the Grammys: Stop accepting the invitation to be the upset of the year and demand that this body upholds its mission for advocacy and support of artistry as culture evolves.
Demand that they change this system and truly reflect and truly acknowledge your art.
Arcade Fire’s manager Scott Rodger issued a response in a letter to music analyst Bob Lefsetz via The Lefsetz Letter.
While Rodger’s response was near perfect, I cannot help but want to add to his response with one of my own…
Dear Mr. Stoute,
I am writing this response from the perspective of a true music lover. I have no affiliation with any artists involved with the Grammys. I grew up loving music and my entire livelihood is structured around it.
The letter that you ran in Sunday’s New York Times is an infuriating pile of rubbish written from the perspective of an executive within an industry that is destroying itself.
While Scott Rodger already addressed your concerns about the “coincidences” around Arcade Fire’s performance times, I’d like to address the greater concern: Why did the “unknown” Arcade Fire win Album of the Year, and did they deserve it?
In your critique, you spend a bulk of your argument based around the popularity and sales numbers of Arcade Fire. There’s no doubt that this band is not nearly as popular as their corporate funded competition but they were definitely one of the most popular and top selling independent bands of 2010. They were able to sell out two nights at Madison Square Garden and continue to headline large festivals. Along with a large devoted fanbase, The Suburbs was also one of the most critically acclaimed records of 2010.
Allow me to use the one decent point you made to best explain why Arcade Fire deserved their Grammy over the competition they were up against.
You described Justin Beiber as an artist that defines what it means to be a modern artist, emphasizing his cultural impact. For that reason alone I agree that Steely Dan did not deserve the Grammy in 2001. That one belonged to either Eminem or Radiohead who both released critically acclaimed albums that shook the industry.
But this is also where your argument against Arcade Fire takes an ugly turn. How do Eminen, Katy Perry, Justin Beiber or Lady Gaga really define the modern artist in 2011? What cultural impact did they have. Eminem is a talented rapper who released a solid record, but his impact on music was made 10 years ago. Beiber and Lady Gaga are manufactured products. We’ve seen these performers before in other bodies. They always sell very well to the mainstream crowds, but they come and go as fads. Do you remember how popular Miley Cyrus was 2 years ago? How about Tiffany or Debbie Gibson?
You may not be as connected as you think you are to today’s music trends, but in winning their Grammy Arcade fire represented the independent music world which is continuing to gain power in the industry that was once run big big executives. They represent vinyl sales which were actually up this year. They represent the continuous shift from big time magazines to the much more in touch blogger community. They represent the shift in power to the artist over the machine. They represent the destruction of radio payola that once so heavily influenced what people heard and therefore bought. The power in the music industry is finally shifting back to the artist, after years of getting burnt by the machine. Arcade Fire is not a product, but rather a group of musicians who care about and connect with their fans. Their label, Merge, is run by musicians that allow them artistic freedom and are deeply passionate about their artists. I’m sure Arcade Fire could have put more money into making themselves more popular, but instead they chose to donate large chunks of their earnings to Haiti relief. Arcade Fire represents the music industry post-Napster, as well as the future further deterioration of the major label structure that once ruled the industry. The playing field has become more level. Labels do not need to pay off radio stations, MTV, and publications for their bands to hit #1 on the Billboard charts.
From the critical perspective, The Suburbs wasn’t my absolute favorite record of 2010, but that’s not the point. It represents something bigger. For all the rabid music fans, struggling musicians and artists in the world, Arcade Fire’s victory represents a victory for the collective artist and integrity.
It may not make you happy but we don’t need your kind anymore. Musicians can make records without you and your bloodsucking cronies running the show and taking a large cut. As the major labels continue to deservedly shrivel up and die, the passionate musicians and labels will continue to march on without them.
But I guess you know that already. Why else would you spend thousands of dollars on ad space in New York Times to vent your frustrations?