By Simon Warner, University of Leeds
The Grammys, that great annual showcase of the American popular music business, may not rank quite with the Oscars.
But there is no doubt, that in the prize-giving season, this jamboree of self-congratulation emits a powerful signal through the world’s largest marketplace for singles and albums.
As the 56th edition of this event takes place at Staples Center in Los Angeles this Sunday, the record industry may still be enduring its post-millennial crisis. But on an evening when the best of the current crop join some giants of the past, the web-triggered financial traumas that have beset labels of late will briefly be forgotten in a haze of glittering gongs and champagne fountains.
Around of a third of all music sales – whether downloads or the rapidly shrinking physical format of CD – are still made in the US, so what happens in the land of popular song sends a powerful message to territories around the globe.
So what might we expect? On the live front there is a powerful blend of established greats – from Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, Carole King and Dave Grohl – to an impressive roll call of contemporary stars like Katy Perry, Pink and Taylor Swift.
But while the performances add undoubted glamour and telegenic power to the event, the awards themselves are at the heart of the occasion. The nominees bring together the tried and trusted with a crop of fresh players angling for these prestigious rock and pop crowns.
Most interesting perhaps is the presence of those masters of electro dance Daft Punk, whose most recent album married French beats with the soulful tendencies of two important American artists. Random Access Memories brings together the original European duo with ace producer-singer Pharrell Williams and Chic mastermind Nile Rogers. The long player and the song Get Lucky are both tipped for honours.
Album of the Year also sees country pop darling Taylor Swift put forward for her smash Red, while a more contemplative singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles may steal up on the outside in this key category, with The Blessed Unrest.
The Best Pop Solo Performance features a string of major current names with Katy Perry’s song Roar rubbing shoulders with Bruno Mars’ When I Was Your Man. But it’s hard to look beyond the exquisite Mirrors, Justin Timberlake’s finest moment of 2013.
There’s even more than a little controversy to keep the pop pot boiling as the much played, but much disputed, Blurred Lines is one of five releases named in the Song of the Year category. The song, on which Robin Thicke is joined by T.I. and Pharrell, has attracted scathing criticism for its questionable approach to issues of sexual consent, and has been banned in some quarters, including various UK university campuses.
What of a British presence? UK fortunes have fluctuated quite wildly in the US in the last 20 years – the British Invasion effect of the Beatles which was sustained for decades has long dissipated, with success all too often elusive for ambitious Brits, even if Adele, One Direction and the Wanted have all made recent strides. This time, British stars are few and far between in the line up of nominees.
Those UK performers who do make the cut come in a variety of vintages. Led Zeppelin’s Celebration Day, a live album and film soundtrack recorded at the O2 Arena in London in 2007, is up for Best Rock Album. Another huge British star David Bowie is also nominated in this category for his acclaimed return The Next Day.
A much more recent songwriter/producer Calvin Harris is named for 18 Months in the Best Dance/Electronic Album section, and also in the Best Dance Recording category for Sweet Nothing, featuring the vocal talents of Florence Welch.
Most encouraging for those based over here perhaps, is the Best New Artist list, with two British talents in the running for this award. Ed Sheeran’s quirky, witty folk-tinged rock has been entertaining UK audiences for a number of years and the Americans have begun to take notice of him, too.
Up against Sheeran is a member of that new wave of singer-songwriters who is attracting praise for both his composition and performance style. James Blake, whose second album Overgrown won the Mercury Prize last year, blends blues, soul and electronic music in an extraordinarily atmospheric fashion, and the fact he is even mentioned in this company augurs well.
Whoever does carry off the main prizes this weekend is guaranteed months of publicity and promotion, and the lifelong knowledge they have been honoured in this famous cavalcade. Whether the industry’s post-bash hangover recedes that quickly is another issue. The golden days when multi-million album sales were a licence to print money are long gone. The business of music, in an age where video games far outsell singers and bands, will continue to face uncertain times.
Simon Warner does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.