A Look Behind the Best New Artist Grammy

Courtney Barnett's surprise nomination casts light on the Academy's complicated awards process

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What do The Beatles, Cyndi Lauper, and John Legend all have in common? Aside from the fact that they’re all probably on your mom’s iPod, they are three of the 55 artists to have won the Grammy’s Best New Artist award. First issued in 1960 to Bobby Darin, the Best New Artist honor has consistently remained one of the most popular and controversial categories of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ annual Grammy presentation.

According to Bill Freimuth, Recording Academy Vice President of Awards, the Best New Artist award has more rules attached to it than any other category. It’s the only category that Freimuth manages hands-on, and, as he explains it, it’s a beast to determine each year.

For the 2016 awards, an initial pool of 750 artists was submitted for consideration by voting and associate members of the Academy, as well as record labels. These submissions were then vetted to ensure every potential nominee met the eligibility criteria, at which point screening committees formed to determine the subjective qualifications of the eligible artists. The 2016 initial ballot included 431 eligible nominees, which were then sent out to the Academy’s voting members. Deloitte, the Grammys’ official auditing firm, crunched the numbers and reported the top 20 vote-getters. Lastly, the Nominations Review Committee met for two days, listening to the 20 finalists, discussing them, and finally voting by secret ballot to determine the final five nominees.

Courtney Barnett // Photo by Philip Cosores
Photo by Philip Cosores

This year, one of the final five is Courtney Barnett, an Australian singer-songwriter whose debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, found itself on many Best of 2015 lists (including ours). Barnett calls the experience of being nominated “surreal,” a moment amplified by the fact she was told the news minutes after getting off a long flight home to Australia. She’s also very candid in her assessment of what being nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy may ultimately mean for her career.

“It means I can put ‘Grammy-nominated’ at the start of all my press releases,” she laughs.

The Best New Artist award has a history of being a curse of sorts for the artists who receive it, a stigma Freimuth traces back to the ’80s and ’90s, when artists like Marc Cohn and Hootie and the Blowfish were given the trophy only to slide rapidly into obscurity. In 1990, infamous lip-synchers Milli Vanilli had their Best New Artist award vacated, the first and only time a Grammy has been issued and then revoked. More recently, an internet storm started brewing when Lady Gaga was left off of the list of 2010 nominees, forcing the Grammys to once again reexamine and redefine the Best New Artist category.

“That was a really interesting one,” says Freimuth, “because as often as we try to be proactive with our rules and get ahead of the curve, sometimes we are reactive. That was one of those cases.”

The catalyst for the controversy lay in Gaga’s 2009 nomination for Best Dance Recording for “Just Dance”, a single off her 2008 debut, The Fame. Rules at the time stipulated that an artist could not be nominated for Best New Artist if they had already received a prior Grammy nomination, but in the wake of the fervor surrounding Gaga’s omission from the category in 2010 (the year she received nominations for Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Dance Recording, and Best Electronic/Dance Album), the rules were amended. 2016 nominee Meghan Trainor and 2011 nominee Drake are two of the artists who have subsequently benefitted from this rule change.

Perhaps more universally interesting is the subjective qualifications associated with the Best New Artist category. In the Grammys’ own words, an artist must “obtain prominence” to be considered for the award, a hazy distinction compounded by the fact that from the time an artist releases their full-length debut record, they are eligible for three years. This explains how Lady Gaga could release an album in 2008 and hope to be nominated for Best New Artist in 2010 or how Courtney Barnett could be in the 10th year of her career as a musician and be a current nominee.

Despite its somewhat inaccurate implications, Barnett doesn’t consider the Best New Artist distinction insulting.

“It’s always going to be new to someone,” she says.

lumineers A Look Behind the Best New Artist Grammy

For Wesley Schultz, lead singer of The Lumineers, nominated for Best New Artist in 2013, the name of the category can feel misleading. He references James Blake and Bon Iver as examples of artists who, like The Lumineers, had seasoned careers before being nominated in the Best New Artist category.

“In order to be considered, people need to have heard of you in some way prior,” he says, “so I think what the nomination really means is that you’re landing on a lot of people’s radars all of the sudden. But we had been at it for eight or nine years before we were nominated.”

Barnett and Schultz agree that semantics aside, the impact of a nomination can be a tremendous opportunity for a music career still gaining traction. Schultz feels that if the designation gets more people to his music, “that’s about all you can hope for.” Barnett sees her nomination as a chance for people that have never heard of her to experience one of her songs. Freimuth too wholeheartedly endorses the idea that winning the category is almost secondary to the exposure a nomination can provide.

“Being nominated when you’re up against 450 other artists in the category — to be one of the top five — I think is pretty considerable recognition to be given to somebody,” he says.

Asked whether the inclusion of artists like Esperanza Spalding (the first jazz artist to win Best New Artist) and Barnett, who joins a very short list of artists to be nominated without being signed to a major label, is indicative of efforts on the Grammys’ part to expand their search for nominees, Freimuth emphasizes the neutral stance the Academy takes on matters like labels, genres, and geographic origins.

“It really comes down to the music, and to their performance, and what they’re recording,” he says. “Is this something that is really impressive and perhaps taking music a little bit farther?”

Barnett likewise sees her status as an indie artist as beside the point. She says that whether an artist is on an independent label or a major, it doesn’t make anyone more or less worthwhile. While she welcomes the extra exposure her Best New Artist nomination has provided, she confides that in order to keep making the kind of music that secured her this recognition in the first place, she has to remain a bit oblivious to the mounting buzz around her.

“I just want to write good songs. That’s what I always try to do,” she says. “Just focus on writing songs that I care about instead of the other stuff.”

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