Baltimore bands say who needs a Grammy?

They're critic's darlings, yet none are award nominees. And that suits them just fine.

February 11, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

Before the Grammy nominations were announced last month, it looked like at least one Baltimore band would finally get recognized.

Beach House had a big and critically acclaimed album last year. So did J. Roddy Walston and the Business.

It didn't have to be one of the big awards. A small one would do, like best pop performance by a duo or group with vocals, or best engineered album — nonclassical.

But on Dec. 1, the bands got bupkis. Instead, the expected big sellers were name-checked: Gaga, Perry, Eminem. Even a dead guy, Michael Jackson, scored a nod.

Best pop performance by a duo? "Don't Stop Believin,'" by the cast of "Glee." The final insult.

Beach House at least has the consolation that Baltimore's vaunted indie acts have never scored a nomination. Dan Deacon, Wye Oak, Ponytail, Lungfish have accumulated a grand total of zero nominations for the industry's highest honor.

Artists are unfazed by the snubs. Some of their labels didn't even nominate them for consideration.

They say that at a time when records sales are flat-lining, an award that recognizes records seems especially outdated. Indie artists now don't even need it to raise their profile.

"In terms of creating awareness, honestly, a Grammy is way down on the list," said Spott Philpott, label manager at Merge Records, which represents local duo Wye Oak. "The easiest way is through social networking. And getting a band to play in front of people."

Asked what he thought about the awards, rock 'n' roller Walston retorted: "I don't."

Historically, the Grammys have been as much of a punching bag as Dan Quayle. Over the years, all the usual complaints have been lodged against the members of the recording academy: favoritism, cronyism, horrible taste-ism.

Many feel that way still. "It's not an award given to people solely for creative achievement," said Walston. "It's related to mainstream success and getting a certain number of sales."

"It's not something we take seriously," said David Halstead, spokesman for Thrill Jockey, which represents local bands Arbouretum and Future Islands.

It used to be that, despite all the criticism, major labels held the awards in high esteem because of the bump it could give record sales.

"It resulted in sales, airplay, just more attention for your record," said Jim Mahoney, vice president of the American Association of Independent Music. "It may have given you a look you weren't getting from a retailer or buyer."

But in the past 10 years, record sales have dropped drastically, thanks to, among other things, the digitalization of the industry, be it via legal venues or illegal file-sharing. While in one week in 2000, there were 45 million albums sold, 10 years later weekly sales had dropped to 5 million at one particularly low point in June, according to industry magazine Billboard, estimating that sales were at their lowest point since the early 1970s.

With plummeting record sales, the Grammys can have only so much influence. Where in 2000, the soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" sold some 200,000 extra copies the week after it copped a win. Carrie Underwood's win for "Play On" last year brought her a bump of only 30,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Mahoney points out that while music access was once shepherded through the corridor of traditional AM and FM radio and retail buyers, the Internet has changed how labels promote music and how people listen to it.

"The Internet has leveled the playing field," Mahoney said. "There's no one way to bring attention to indie musicians. Now you can create your website, you can put your video online and reach out to your fans in a way you couldn't before. The gatekeepers have been removed, or the gatekeepers have become the fans themselves."

This industry-wide transformation has made the Recording Academy, which selects nominees for the award's 109 categories, even less useful to record labels that already didn't care for it.

In 2009, Carpark Records didn't submit Dan Deacon's "Bromst," one of that year's most acclaimed, for consideration. This year, Halstead said Thrill Jockey didn't nominate Future Islands' "In Evening Air."

Todd Hyman, Carpark's president, said he has never seen the awards as affecting his bottom line.

"What we have always done is sell music, whether it's through press, radio, social media, touring, whatever avenues are available to us," he wrote in an e-mail. "As far as I can tell the people who nominate artists for Grammys are not the hippest people, and they probably aren't obsessive indie rock fans. I'm guessing that they haven't even heard of most bands from Baltimore."

Philpott said Merge nominates about a dozen records every year, but that it doesn't do any of the campaigning that is typical at the major labels. It came as a surprise, he said, when Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire was nominated for album of the year.

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