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Thanks to online voting, the Grammys’ Album of the Year nominees are the most diverse ever

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Bye-bye, paper ballots

The 59th GRAMMY Awards - Roaming Show Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS

The 2018 Grammy Award nominations were released this morning, and certain categories looked markedly more diverse in their selections. “Despacito” became the first Spanish-language song to be nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year, every lead artist nominated for Record of the Year was a person of color, and the list for best Album of the Year did not contain a single white male artist for the first time in Grammy history. (Sorry, Ed Sheeran.) In short, the nominations are incredibly diverse. Even Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow noticed, telling Billboard it’s "a wonderful reflection on our organization and how relevant and in touch and savvy our voting members are."

So, how did this happen? A switch to digital voting and a revamp of the Grammy online platform are likely large contributing factors. Grammy nominees are decided by voting members: music industry professionals who have creative or technical credits on at least six commercial tracks on a physical music release, or 12 on a digital album. They’re not just label bigwigs. They’re songwriters, touring artists, and engineers. And, there’s only about 13,000 of them. So we discussed how these changes could have such a dramatic impact on the current crop of Grammy nominees.

Micah Singleton: Back in June, the The Grammys finally switched to online voting, allowing more of their 13,000-member voting block to participate. If you’re a touring artist or a successful producer or songwriter, chances are you aren’t sitting at home waiting for a ballot to come in the mail, which is how the Grammys have been run up until this year. Now that more people have the ability to vote, we see the results: a far more diverse field than ever, especially in the top categories. Dani, you’re a new member of the Recording Academy. How have the changes affected you?

Dani Deahl: Micah, you were actually the one who pushed me to apply and become a Grammy voting member! Once my application was accepted, I realized just how much opportunity there is for voting members to make a difference. There’s only around 13,000 of us deciding who gets these very important awards. I also wasn’t aware until you told me that this was the first year voting members could cast votes online. Since many voting members are on the road much of the time, I can imagine it would be a major hassle to make your voice heard. Do you think the Academy saw online voting as a way to diversify, or was it simply catching up with technology?

MS: I think it was both. It seems like The Academy got tired of the constant backlash after the less-than-diverse group of winners that emerged nearly every year. A hip-hop artist hasn’t won Album of the Year in 13 years (Outkast), and a black woman hasn’t won since 1999 (Lauryn Hill), despite the existence of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Solange, and a host of other black women who have released great albums. Even SZA, whose album Ctrl was my favorite in 2017, didn’t get an Album of the Year nomination, so there’s still a ways to go.

Online voting also means that the artists, songwriters, and producers who are on the road creating musical culture can vote with ease. Imagine if you were able to vote in the presidential election online, instead of having to stand in line or mail a ballot in. The turnout would skyrocket, and the same is true for the Grammys. They removed the roadblocks to vote, and the first outcome of the new system makes me optimistic.

DD: In practice, what you’re describing with the paper votes prevented or discouraged a lot of people from voting, and they weren’t usually the most established members of the industry. Also, Grammy VP Bill Freimuth said there were a lot of other problems with paper ballots, aside from the inconvenience of mailing them. Ballots were often filled out incorrectly, or members would vote in categories where they weren’t authorized. “This way the software will not let them submit incorrectly,” Freimuth told Variety. “Finally, on the same site, voters will be able to listen to or watch all of the nominated recordings or videos, or look at the nominees for package design. It makes for more informed voting on the whole, than voting based on name recognition and popularity and charts and things like that.”

Previously, you had to find the material you were voting on… on your own? Who’s got time for that? No one! Most people probably voted based on the small range of music they’d already heard, or names they recognized. How much has this new system corrected things? Do this year’s nominees more closely reflect the albums that are “the best” as opposed to previous years?

MS: I don’t think moving to online voting changed how people vote; it just made some people’s votes carry less weight, in a sense. Now someone who doesn’t listen to rap or someone who doesn’t know rock music won’t necessarily have an outsized influence on the genre, if the people who are knowledgeable have more access. And sure, you could say members always had the ability to vote, but they didn’t do it in the past. This year’s nominations are the clearest indicator of that. Childish Gambino got nominated for Album of the Year, and deservedly so. But do you think a part-funk, part neo-soul album from a rapper stood a chance of garnering the highest nomination last year? I don’t.

There have been so many misses, most notably for Album of the Year, over the past decade, and this is the first time it doesn’t feel like there was a major oversight (besides Ctrl). That’s progress. The final results may be a different story, but we won’t find out until the Grammys in January.

Let’s talk about white men. How shocked are you that this is the first time in history a white man hasn’t been nominated for Album of the Year?

DD: I’m shocked, and also… not shocked? Every time something like this happens there’s this duality in my head of “wow, this is amazing!” and also “wow, this just happened now?” There is such weight in seeing people you identify with get recognized at the highest level. Some might think the Grammys don’t mean much, but they are absolutely influential and a reflection of culture. They make careers.

I’m so used to seeing lists of nominees for all awards populated by white men, so Album of the Year was striking to me right away. Also, it’s not about not seeing white men as much as it is about seeing different groups of people get accolades for their work — people who might have been overlooked before. The voting members aren’t shadowy figures pulling strings behind a curtain. Sure, some members are very powerful people in the industry, but a lot of them are like me: musicians who tour and have singles and live the late nights, early flights lifestyle.

It was relatively easy for older executives and producers to vote in the previous system, but not so for someone like me. Now, the people actually contributing to cultural change the most — touring musicians, new producers and songwriters, etc. — have access to participate in ways that were never there before. This year’s list is a direct reflection of that. When you make a system easier for everyone to use, everyone wins.