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Grammy Awards: Commercial Appeal Overtakes Artistic Merit

May 1, 2004

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz, HHaimowitz@aol.com

This Sunday night tens of millions of viewers will tune in to the Grammy Awards, an awards-and-entertainment blitz that bills itself as TV's best variety show.

But, according to an study in the Feb/March 2004 issue of the Academy of Management Journal, the Grammys also bear some resemblance to a political convention, incorporating "a back stage tussle among multiple and conflicting interests" that does much to shape the entire music industry.

And, increasingly, the outcome of this tussling is decided by money, the authors of the AMJ article conclude, as they follow the evolution of the Grammy Awards from its original purpose of recognizing artistic achievement to its current status as the premier marketing tool for a mammoth industry.

"Hard as it is to believe nowadays," comments Mary R. Watson of New School University in New York City, co-author of the study with Narasimhan Anand of the London Business School, "when the first Grammy Awards were bestowed in the late 1950s, it was with the explicit mandate of recognizing artistic merit rather than commercial appeal. Today, although artistic merit still has a place in the Grammy Awards, by far the main point of it all is money."

According to Watson and Anand, the most important factor in this shift was an agreement in 1983 between the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), organizer of the Grammy Awards, and the National Association of Record Merchandisers whereby retailers would promote Grammy Award nominees and winners. At the same time, the magazine Billboard, which counts retailers among its principal readers, began to trumpet the marketing potential of the Grammy Awards and to publicize stores that fostered it.

"Up to that point, retailers were the odd man out when it came to the Grammys," says Watson. "They were hardly mentioned by the trade press in connection with the event. Then somebody realized that the Grammys were a great way to boost sales after the peak of the Christmas season, and the Grammy Awards came to be what is known in the trade as a Hallmark Card reason, a good excuse to have a sale or promotion. As one executive in the music industry put it, 'By 1984 the Grammys were in your face at all the record stores.' "

A major result of this development, Watson and Anand found, was a huge widening of the gap between Grammy Award winners and the nominees they bested. Thus, in the 10 years before 1984, winners of the award for Best New Artist did not sell significantly more in subsequent years than nominees; by contrast, in the decade beginning with 1984 they sold, on average, almost four times as much per year.

"Suddenly there was a tremendous premium on winning," says Watson. "Artists really sat up and took notice, whereas in the early years of the Grammys it was fairly common for nominated artists to ignore the show. In 1978, for example, the Eagles chose to spend their time working on a new album rather than turn up to collect their Record of the Year award for their song 'Hotel California.' I think you're much less likely to see that today."

Money has had the effect, too, of intensifying the pressures to expand the number of awards and to recognize new modes of performance, like rap. From 1975 and 1994, the total number of awards increased from 47 to 79, while, in the single decade since, it has risen to 108, a near-doubling of the rate of adding awards.

And, while rap encountered resistance in gaining acceptance by NARAS, it did not take nearly as long as rock, which did not become an award category until 1979, a full quarter century after it burst on the American scene. As Watson and Anand write, "For most pioneers of rock music, embittered by the struggle within NARAS, recognition came too little, too late. When the Rolling Stones...who never won a Grammy award, were honored belatedly with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1986, Mick Jagger accepted with these words: 'Thank you. The joke is on you.' "

Adds Watson: "Rap was the country's most commercially popular genre by the mid-1980s, and its inclusion as an award category in 1989 certainly reflects the growing commercialization of the Grammys. But more was involved than that, of course. The conflict over rock music was mainly a rift between generations, while the divisions over rap had largely to do with race. The fact that rap took less time than rock to achieve recognition by the Grammys -- and that NARAS has been eager to keep Latin music in the fold -- suggests that we're becoming not only a more commercial country but a more inclusive one."

Watson and Anand are studying the Grammy Awards as part of what they see as the growing popularity of award ceremonies throughout society. "Award ceremonies," they write, "are becoming increasing fashionable," citing such far-flung examples as the Wendt Memorial Prize of the National Stone, Sand, & Gravel Association or the Gold and Silver awards of the Packaging Association of Canada or the Horners Award of the British Plastics Federation.

"Why are award ceremonies proliferating?" Watson asks. "Clearly, they offer an appealing way for industries and organizations to reshape themselves and work out their conflicts. Perhaps, too, the gap is diminishing between society's most creative sectors and all the rest; thus, while the Grammys grow increasingly commercial, a national packaging association sees fit to recognize the 'best decorated corrugated fibreboard' and a national federation to commend 'the most imaginative contribution' to plastics."

The Academy of Management Journal, a peer-reviewed publication now in its 47th year, is published every other month by the academy, which, with over 13,000 members in 90 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Review, the Academy of Management Executive, and Academy of Management Learning and Education.

Media Coverage:
Public Radio International. Marketplace Morning Report. Commentary by Adam Hanft. (Friday, February 06, 2004).
Public Radio International. Marketplace. Interview with Mary Watson. (Friday, February 06, 2004).

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