It may feel like the awards were just announced, but if you're plotting an attempt at a Grammy, or at least a nomination, for this year, the time to think about it is now.
First, let's talk Grammy basics. Though getting a recording considered for nomination is fairly straightforward, winning an award may prove more of a challenge. Winners are determined by the members of NARAS (the North American Recording Arts Society), for vote for the recording of their choice at the end of each year.
Members range from major label execs to independent studio engineers, from pop producers in Los Angeles to folk fiddlers in Maine. Anyone with credits on a certain number of commercially produced tracks (12 for digital distribution, 6 for physical distribution) can qualify for membership. Members and labels can submit recordings for consideration (though labels can’t vote). If you are joining for the first time and hope to submit content for Grammy consideration, you need to be approved as a member first, and there is a cut off date (late June, usually) for that year’s voting.
To qualify for submission, a recording must be released commercially in the US through a national online retailer or via physical distribution or both, by late September. Then it must be officially submitted by a NARAS member. (See grammy.org to confirm this year’s deadline, categories, and rules.) Let’s repeat that: A recording can only be submitted by a NARAS member!
Note: Foreign labels can become members, so long as they have US distribution.
Submissions are compiled and reviewed by small committees of professionals (folks like journalists, producers, musicians) who determine if a submission actually belongs in the category. 51% of an album’s tracks must pass genre muster for the submission to move on to the next phase. And an album must be submitted to get on the list of potential nominees—the Academy doesn’t just pick up the best, coolest, or most popular albums and put them forth to members.
The eligible submissions go on a list that then goes out to all the voting members. For the first round, which determines the nominees for the year, members are allowed to vote only in their fields of expertise—world music or jazz, say—as well as big, general nominees like Song of the Year or Best New Artist. This first round of voting narrows the long list of submissions down to a short list of nominees, and then NARAS members vote again, this time with permission to vote in far more categories. Thus, someone with a great knowledge of heavy metal may take it upon herself to go ahead and vote for who should get the World Music Album Grammy that year.
This process means that while better-known genres of music like pop and rock may actually indicate something about the state of the music industry that year (as in, some of the better albums and songs may just get the prize), results are a touch murkier for lesser-known musical realms like world music. Just as the Marleys tend to sweep the reggae category year after year, the winners among world music artists tend to be very well-established, legacy ensembles like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Gypsy Kings. Why? Because people tend to go with what they know, and vote for more familiar nominees.
As publicists, we are often asked if we can help boost an artist’s chances of winning a Grammy. The easy answer is no, or at least not directly. NARAS has strict rules governing the lobbying of its members, though there are specialists who have strategies for delicately reaching out to the right people who may help improve a recording’s chances of success.
One tip from Bob Garcia, a veteran of the music business and a long-time navigator of the Grammy process on behalf of both labels and artists: Look up the twelve regional chapters of NARAS and mail 5-6 copies of your disc with a very, very simple cover letter (just the bare facts) to the executive director. “That will help get your recording on their radars,” he explains. (And note: that’s hardcopy albums, not downloads
There may also be some indirect support that publicity can provide an artist. For the reasons outlined above, the bigger your name, the more widely discussed your album, the more likely you are to win over the less-informed votes who tend to pick artists they have heard of before. A nationally successful album, a strong and well-covered tour, and a major national media hit—like, say, what appearing on the Colbert Report in late 2011 did for the already critically acclaimed Tinariwen—may be enough to turn the ears of the voters your way.
Along similar lines, persistence is also a virtue in the Grammy process. The more frequently you’re on the consideration list, the more likely you are to win over voters. “It may not be the first time,” Garcia says, “but the second or third time around, especially if people are talking about you or your work, you may see more results.”
NARAS has also been encouraging artists to get on grammy365.com, a social media platform that some nominees—particularly those in smaller categories—have credited with giving them an edge among voters.
Regardless, your best bet is to join NARAS and submit on time, get your name out there so that voters hear about you, and hope for the best. “The most important step,” reflects Garcia, “is to make a really good record.”