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Here’s A Breakdown Of The Grammy Awards’ Most Confusing Categories

We tracked down the Recording Academy’s SVP of awards to find out how the Grammys’ categories are created and defined.

Here’s A Breakdown Of The Grammy Awards’ Most Confusing Categories
[Photo: Flickr user The Come Up Show, Kai Z Feng/Atlantic Records, Raven Varona/Atlantic Records, Flickr user Kenny Sun, Sølve Sundsø/RCA]

For the past 59 years, the number of Grammy categories have fluctuated between just 28 to more than 100, as a result of the dynamic nature of music. Genres rise and fall, and rise again as new generations build on the songwriting and producing of the generation before. At this year’s 60th annual Grammy Awards, 84 awards will be given across 30 categories.

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The process of putting all those awards together, of sifting through categories and rule change petitions and nominations, isn’t unlike the running of a small government. And at the helm is Bill Freimuth, the Recording Academy’s SVP of Awards–and it’s a job that comes with about as many meetings as you’d expect.

“Don’t talk to me about meetings,” Freimuth tells Fast Company, laughing. “Really every little aspect of the awards process is potentially up for change every single year.”

That means that any of the Academy’s members can draft proposals to edit everything, from award qualifications to genre definitions. On the one hand, all of those potential changes help keep music’s biggest night current and abreast of trends. On the other hand, it means that the everyday music layman might have no idea of the nuances of certain categories. In fact, they might not even know the real difference between Record of the Year and Song of the Year, a discussion that seems to always come up this time of year.

“Terminology in music releases, in particular, has gotten really muddled and muddied in the last several years,” says Freimuth. “With digital streaming and downloads and all of that, a lot of people don’t know what an album is anymore much less a record versus a song.”

So what is the difference? Why do we have a category for Latin music, but not K-Pop or J-Pop? How do the Grammys adjust for trends without falling for a passing fad? And how exactly are these people making all of these decisions? Luckily, Freimuth is ready to set the record (and song) straight.

ONCE AND FOR ALL, HERE IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RECORD AND SONG OF THE YEAR

The two similar-sounding categories are blurry, since we often use words like “record” and “song” interchangeably when referring to music in real life. But the real difference is in who gets the credit. It’s simply a way to give more props to more people who put in the work of creating the songs we love.

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“I think the easiest way to describe it is that Song of the Year, and any of the categories we have with the word ‘song’ in the title, are recognizing songwriting only. Only the songwriters receive the actual Grammys,” Freimuth says. “As opposed to Record of the Year, which is an award for performance and production. So the Record of the Year the award goes to the artist/performer and the producers or engineers who worked on the song.”

A new policy enacted this year actually changes who gets the Grammy for Album of the Year. Songwriters who are credited with 33% or more of the song will also receive their own Grammy, in addition to the artists themselves.

HERE’S WHY BEST NEW ARTIST DOESN’T ALWAYS SEEM SO NEW

This year’s nominees for Best New Artist include Alessia Cara, Khalid, Lil Uzi Vert, Julia Michaels, and SZA. While all of those artists had big 2017s, my first instinct was to second-guess the inclusion of Alessia Cara. In 2015, Cara released her ubiquitous anti-party anthem “Here,” which was her first introduction to a bigger audience.

But Freimuth says the Grammys committee considers more than just one viral single when deciding if an artist is new enough to qualify.

“[This category] is getting more and more tricky. A lot of artists aren’t worrying about ever putting out an album. It’s really just a series of singles that are being released,” he says. “What the committee has decided over the last couple of years is that they also are taking into account the trajectory of an artist’s career. So, yes, it’s arguable that Alessia Cara attained some recognition in a prior year. But the people arguing in favor of her being eligible for Best New Artist were able to demonstrate to the committee that she continued on an upward trajectory and became considerably more prominent during the current eligibility year.”

2017, after all, was the year Cara hit her stride. She had two hit collaborations in “Stay” with producer Zedd and “1-800-273-8255” with Logic, which also has a Song of the Year nod. “While a lot of music insiders may have known her a year prior, she really came to the public in this current year,” Freimuth says.

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UNTANGLING RAP, URBAN CONTEMPORARY, AND R&B…

Genre definitions are one of the trickier parts of the Grammys because they’re more subject to change with the times–and they’re often heatedly debated by the Recording Academy’s committees and subcommittees.

While a field like rap seems straightforward, the lines blur with urban contemporary and R&B, which is itself split into traditional R&B and just plain R&B in the performance category. It’s hard to see why Childish Gambino is nominated for Best Traditional R&B Performance,  rather than straight R&B or at even rap. Or why The Weeknd and Bruno Mars end up in categories like Urban Contemporary and R&B instead of an extended definition of pop music “Pop” does mean “popular,” right?

“The way we define Urban Contemporary music is that while it has R&B at its base, it’s more likely to include elements of hip-hop and dance/electronic music,” Freimuth says. “[Production] is the easiest way to tell the difference between Urban Contemporary and R&B. R&B is a bit larger umbrella. It includes everything from what we would call traditional R&B, like 1950s doo-wop and 1960s soul music, or Motown sounds, all the way up to the folks who have been carrying that [tradition] on.”

Freimuth has also noticed more recent genre-mixing with the R&B and Jazz fields. “A lot of the same people are working in both now,” he says. “You see people like Kamasi Washington, the saxophone player, and when he makes an album by himself it’s pretty much jazz. But then he goes and works on a Kendrick Lamar album. There’s a lot of cross-pollination happening right there.”

…AND ALSO COUNTRY, FOLK, AMERICANA, AMERICAN ROOTS

A similar dynamic is at play within the American Roots and Country fields. If you’re not a country music aficionado, try explaining to someone the difference between folk and Americana, and American roots, bluegrass, and country. Often, Freimuth says, “It’s like, you know it if you hear it.”

During a major 2010 restructuring, the Grammys decided that Folk and Americana, formerly one category, should be split. They then spent the next five years redefining what exactly Americana means.

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“We’ve finally gotten to a place that everybody seems to be comfortable with, saying that it’s generally derived from what was originally called ‘outlaw country music,'” Freimuth says. “It’s country that had a lot of rock and blues elements to it, maybe a little bit more of an electric sound, more of a rough edge.”

And there can be overlap. This year, for example, Alison Krauss ended up in both the Best American Roots Performance category and Best Country Solo Performance–for different songs.

To determine which songs go to which categories, each category has its own committee that goes through every single nomination and debates along the way. The committees meet each September and include both Recording Academy members as well as non-member experts such as label executives and music journalists.

The chairs of those two committees will come and make a presentation to this larger core room committee and make their arguments, play the music, and that room will have to make the final determination,” Freimuth says. “And yeah, sometimes it can get a little heated.”

WHY DOESN’T A MASSIVELY POPULAR GENRE LIKE “K-POP” GET IT’S OWN CATEGORY?

To add to the permanent genre identity crisis is the question of when to add new genres altogether. Especially now, in the age of streaming, people have more access to international music than ever. But the only language-specific field is Latin music.

Freimuth argues that every recording has a place in the Grammys, though he admits that “some of them are maybe a little more awkward fits than others.” Technically, trendy music always has a chance for the big four (Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best New Artist), as well as pop.  This year, Song of the Year and Record of the Year get a rare Latin offering, with “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, featuring Justin Bieber.  If it wins, it’d be the first Spanish-language song ever to win Song of the Year.

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So in essence, a K-pop band like BTS is eligible in both pop and the general field categories. Meanwhile, genre-pushing music could also enter into the alternative field, which Freimuth says “can start with any genre of music and take it to a new place.” It’s not technically limited to the Vampire Weekends, Arcade Fires, and other alt-rock bands of the world.

One reason for the pared-down feeling of international or foreign language music genres is a goal of making the Grammys not feel watered down.

“We did a pretty big top to bottom restructuring in 2010, and since that time it’s been much harder to get a category added,” Freimuth says. “Because we made a decision as an organization that one of the ways to protect the status of the Grammy award is to limit how many of them we give out.”

The Grammys may be decided by experts, but, like anything dealing with the arts, it can also be arbitrary and subjective.

“We pride ourselves on having our ears open and our hearts and our minds open to change and to keeping up because music changes pretty rapidly–and we can’t change as rapidly as music itself,” Freimuth says. And moving so quickly sometimes results in misjudging trends.

“We started a Best Disco category in 1981, which is probably kind of late for disco,” he says. “And we discontinued the category in 1982 because disco was pretty much dead by that point.”

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The Grammy Awards air Sunday, January 28 at 7:30 p.m. on CBS.

About the author

P. Claire Dodson is an assistant editor at Fast Company. Follow her on Twitter: @Claire_ifying.

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