Bill Freimuth, VP, Awards of NARAS, speaks

By Enrique Lopetegui

“These days, things like NARAS' latest brouhaha matter only to the bean counters at the —thank Heavens— soon-to-be defunct old-school record companies and old-guard music industry types,” said Emilio Morales, editor of La Banda Elástica, in an email. “I have never met anyone in the Latin alternative scene (and I've been around for a while), that has been inclined or swayed to check out a new Latino act (in any category) just because of a Grammy nomination or award.”

The Austin-based Emilio is talking about the decision by NARAS (the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, which organizes the Grammy Awards and of which I'm a non-voting member) to merge the Latin Urban and Latin Rock/Alternative categories into a single one, which makes as much sense as installing an ashtray on a motorcycle.

“Thankfully, nowadays, for a vast majority of concert ticket-buyers and new Latin alternative music consumers, a comment on an influential blog or website is more relevant than a Latin Grammy sticker on a CD cover or a top spot on the Billboard charts,” Emilio goes on, adding that “as for the Latin `alternative` bands that have ever won anything or been nominated, it just gives them well-deserved bragging rights but, aside from some welcomed PR attention, everything stays the same afterwards.” (Yeah, go tell Juanes that)

Here's my complete conversation with Freimuth (my Kamikaze column discusses the topic further on this Wednesday's edition of the Current).

* * *

Would NARAS ever put, say, Eminem and Bruce Springsteen in the same category?

We already have a rock/gospel category, and Eminem and Bruce can already compete in the Record and Album of the Year categories...

Yes, but the rock/gospel category is under the Gospel umbrella. I mean, would you ever have Eminem and Bruce compete for “Rock/Hip-Hop Album of the Year.” The "Latin Rock, Alternative or Urban Album" category mixes apples and oranges, but I don't see that in the English categories.

We have Coldplay going against Metallica already. What do they have to do with each other? We don't have an infinite number of categories and we don't want to give out 500 Grammys anymore. So we need to merge some things together as best as we possibly can.

Why so much stress on the 25-minimum rule for submissions in each category, in order to be considered for a nomination? That rule has created a lot of problems. Why not just consider the albums on their own merits and choose from what you got, instead of arbitrarily forcing disparate styles together?

The problem is that we want to create a lot more competition. We don't feel that it's fair, for example, that one out of every five Latin urban artists would receive a Grammy nomination, whereas one out of every 50 rock artists receives a nomination. We're trying to make a little more of a leveled playing field. We don't want to make it that it's a lot easier to receive a Grammy nomination in a smaller subgenre than it is in the larger categories.

Even at the expense of mixing apples and oranges just because they're both fruits?

But three years ago they were together in the same category...

That's true and nobody complained. But it sucked, nevertheless.

That said, you'll find that in a lot of our categories, like Alternative, you have different styles competing. Alternative rap, alternative R&B, alternative rock, alternative pop, country, jazz, alternative classical... And they're all competing against each other. In reggae music we have dancehall reggae and roots reggae. A lot of people are very uncomfortable with that, having people with different audiences and different radio stations and venues, and yet they're still reggae music.

Yes, but somehow, Shabba Ranks vs. Bob Marley sounds less absurd than Daddy Yankee vs. Juanes...

I understand what you are saying, but if you talk to people on the reggae field they would dispute that.

And I would agree with them: I think `dancehall and reggae` deserve their own separate category, which brings me back to my original point: if you have only three submissions in the rock category, what are you going to do? Eliminate rock or send it to another category? Rock is rock and there will always be rock, whether it's one or a million entries. The same with cumbia and polka. My position is that, if I have the choice of “leveling the field” or having more accurate categories, I choose the latter. And that's the main difference between the Academy and those who agree with my position.

What about Tropical Latin? One category covers salsa, cumbia, merengue...

Yes, same thing: they should be separate, but again, your point is “how many categories are we going to have...?”

You have to draw the line somewhere. It's a standing rule that we have: if we don't have 25 entries, it gets discussed. There were representatives of the Latin music world in the room and they were saying “I think we created this years ago to address what was happening with reggaetón, and `it` just never panned out into enough entries to make enough of a competition.

What's amazing is that it wasn't the rock category going into the urban category but the other way around. That would mean that either reggaetón is not as big as one thinks, or that they're so untogether that they can't send their submissions, or that they simply don't give a damn or, as many critics say, NARAS didn't do enough outreach.

There's only so much outreach you can do... (laughs) We have limitations in our financial resources. I know the Recording Academy as a whole has made tremendous efforts to outreach to the Latin music community, initially in places like LA, Florida, or New York. It's a slower process than we'd like it to be, but we're really trying to reach out as much as we possibly can. On the other side of that, in the past we've created a new category based on the argument “if you build it, they will come,” and that really hasn't worked. We really have to depend on the people caring enough to make the submissions.

But why LARAS (the Latin Recording Academy) doesn't have those problems? Is their outreach better?

I'm not positive as to why. The only thing I know, even though I'm not involved in LARAS' work, `is that` a main distinction is that LARAS does accept submissions from outside the States. We only accept releases that are nationally `released and` distributed in the US.

That's true, that's true... I also have problems with the privacy rule, because I think if there was open voting people would be more careful as to how to vote. By “open voting” I mean people should be allowed to comment publicly after they vote. Who was in those meetings? All the key members I talked to were shocked to find out about the latest changes.

The names do need to remain confidential, but I will tell you that there were two meetings. The first meeting had our Awards and Nominations Committee, which consists of about 40 people from all over the country and representing all genres, including Latin. The second meeting was our National Board of Trustees, and that also includes representation of the Latin industry.

When did NARAS begin the discussions? It is my understanding that the process of creating or eliminating a category sometimes takes as much as two to three years.

That's not necessarily true. In this case, the discussions just began early this year. It was based on the low number of entries. Sometimes when a category has a low number of entries the committee would decide to give it another year to see how it does. In this case, with both the Polka and Latin Urban they decided that they did not want further time.

`I wanted to ask “Why?” But I already knew his answer: “You should ask the people who voted, but they won't tell you because it's secret”` Besides those meetings, were key members of the Latin urban and rock communities informed that this would happen, or everything started and ended within NARAS?

The latter. We generally try to define ourselves as not driven by what the labels want and what we want to award, but by what the music warrants.

I don't know... Latin Urban was merged into Latin rock/alternative because they were one entry short (24 instead of 25). And we all know that there's more Latin urban albums than that. How hard it is to get the one that's missing? People either don't care or don't know how to do `the submissions`.

One thing that I think happened is that people would enter something in the Latin Grammys and they think it will automatically be considered for the Grammys as well, when there's really two separate processes. That is confusing to people in the Latin community.

Anything else you want to add?

The only possibility that people will have of getting this category back is if we suddenly got a flood of submissions within a year or so. It might happen that we get the category back.


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