Article of the week

In an open letter published by the New York Times in today’s paper, Steve Stoute–the brain behind Lebron James’, Rihanna’s, and Jay-Z’s branding empirestakes the Grammy Awards committee (and artists alike) to task for its peer voting system and how it is biased against the current popular culture music, involving artists like Kanye West, Eminem and Justin Bieber.

Steve has been in this business for over two decades and is one of the most powerful and well-known figures in branding, marketing, and the record industry. Steve is the CEO of Translation LLC, one of the leading and most influential brand marketing firms.  Peep his open letter–in a full page ad in today’s New York Times–to Neil Portnow (President of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences–NARAS), NARAS itself, and the GRAMMY Awards Committee:

February 20, 2011

An Open Letter to Neil Portnow, NARAS and the GRAMMY Awards®:

Over the course of my 20 year history as an executive in the music business and as the owner of a firm that specializes in in-culture advertising, I have come to the conclusion that the GRAMMY Awards have clearly lost touch with contemporary popular culture. My being a music fan has left me with an even greater and deeper sense of dismay – so much so that I feel compelled to write this letter. Where I think that the GRAMMYs fail items from two key sources: (1) overzealousness to produce a popular show hat is at odds with its own system of voting and (2) fundamental disrespect of cultural shifts as being viable and artistic.

As an institution that celebrates artistic works of musicians, singers, songwriters, producers and technical specialists, we have come to expect that the GRAMMYs upholds all of the values that reflect the very best in musicthat is born from our culture. Unfortunately, the awards show has become a series of hypocrisies and contradictions, leaving me to question why any contemporary popular artist would even participate. How is it possible that in 2001. The Marshall Mathers LP – an album by Eminem that ushered in the Bob Dylan of our time — was beaten out by Steely Dan (no disrespect) for Album Of The Year? While we cannot solely utilize album sales as the barometer, this was certainly not the case. Not only is Eminem the bestselling artist of the last decade, but The Marshall Mathers LP was a critical and commercial success that sold over 10 million albums in the United States (19 million worldwide), while Steely Dan sold less than 10% of that amount and came and went as quietly as a church mouse. Or consider even that in 2008 at the 50th Annual GRAMMY Awards®, after going into the night as the most nominated artist, Kanye West’s Graduation was beaten out for Album Of The Year byHerbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters. (This was the first time in 43 years that a jazz album won this category.) While there is no doubt in my mind of the artistic talents of Steely Dan or Herbie Hancock, we must acknowledge the massive cultural impact of Eminem and Kanye West and how their music is shaping, influencing and defining the voice of a generation. It is this same cultural impact that acknowledged the commercial and critical success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1984.

Just so that I’m not showing partiality to hip hop artists (although it would be an entirely different letter as to how hip hop music has been totally diminished as an art form by this organization), how is it that Justin Bieber, an artist that defines what it means to be a modern artist, did not win Best New Artist? Again, his cultural impact and success are even more quantifiable if you factor in his YouTube and Vevo viewership – the fact that he was a talent born entirely of the digital age whose story was crafted in the most humble method of being “discovered” purely for his singing ability (and it should be noted that Justin Bieber plays piano and guitar, as evidenced on his early viral videos).

So while these very artists that the public acknowledges as being worthy of their money and fandom are snubbed year after year at the GRAMMYs, the awards show has absolutely no qualms in inviting these same artists to perform. At first I thought that you were not paying attention to the fact that the mental complexion of the world is becoming tanned, that multiculturalism and polyethnicity are driving new meaning as to what is culturally relevant. Interesting that the GRAMMYs understands cultural relevance when it comes to using Eminem’s, Kanye West’s or Justin Bieber’s name in the billing to ensure viewership and to deliver the all too important ratings for its advertisers.

What truly inspired the writing of this letter was that this most recent show fed my
suspicions. As the show was coming to a close and just prior to presenting the award for Album Of The Year, the band Arcade Fire performed “Month of May” – only to…surprise…win the category and, in a moment of sheer coincidence, happened to be prepared to perform “Ready to Start.” Does the GRAMMYs intentionally use artists for their celebrity, popularity and cultural appeal when they already know the winners and then program a show against this expectation? Meanwhile the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences hides behind the “peer” voting system to escape culpability for not even rethinking its approach. And I imagine that next year there will be another televised super closeup of an astonished frontrunner as they come to the realization before a national audience…that he or she was being used.

You are being called to task at this very moment, NARAS. And to all of the artists that attend the GRAMMYs: Stop accepting the invitation to be the upset of the year and demand that this body upholds its mission for advocacy and support of artistry as culture evolves. Demand that they change this system and truly reflect and truly acknowledge your art.

Steve Stoute
145 W 45th ST. 12th FL, NYC 10036


Yes, people will argue that the Grammys and really any awards show honoring artists and music in the record industry as a whole have seemed to ignore the new wave of the music culture–especially hip hop culture–for many years now.  These award shows like to use the names as top performance billing to bring in the viewership and ad dollars, but hesitate to award those very names.  None of this is a new issue.

However, I cannot remember the last time someone in such a powerful position in this music industry has so publicly spoken out about what we all speak about to each other.  So I, for one, am glad he did. Not only is Mr. Stoute taking the GRAMMY committee to task, but also artists who have yet to stand up to the inequalities (and some would say utter disrespect) and who continue to lap up the performance publicity of a show rather than be honored for their work.

And if you’re wondering just how serious Mr. Stoute is about his statement…One full page ad in the Sunday edition of the NYT costs upwards of $160,000.



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