How Artists Are Playing the Grammy Game

The new ways to snag an award: media campaigns, intimate performances and paying experts who know who the voters are

Credit: Illustration by Andrew Archer

When Harry Styles sat down for an October 15th segment on CBS This Morning, the normally press-shy singer's solo debut was already five months old and he had no new tour dates to promote. But to experts, his timing was perfect – the Recording Academy had just mailed ballots to 12,000 Grammy voters to decide the nominees for the January ceremony. "Harry Styles is in the conversation for Album of the Year, so that gives him visibility during the voting period," says a record-label source. Adds another, "Harry doing something for an older demographic like CBS This Morning is just what a good PR manager would advise: 'We want voters to know you're not one-fifth of a teen-pop band, you're a serious artist.' "

In recent years, Grammy contenders have been more aggressively campaigning for awards, which can be a major boost for sales and streams. Taking cues from Hollywood, labels push artists to take part in Grammy Foundation events and secure voter-friendly media bookings; before the 2016 Grammys, Kendrick Lamar taped Austin City Limits for PBS and did a prominent NPR interview. "I want to win them all," he told one reporter (he won Best Rap Album). Some even pay for access to mailing lists that claim to reveal Grammy's secret voters. "It gets more intense every year," says Daniel Glass, president of Glassnote Records, which is pushing Childish Gambino for a Grammy. "I am getting hit personally, as a voter, with 'For your consideration, please vote for me!' e-mails that I have not seen at this level. The lines of decorum and class are being broken down."

Grammy voter committees change every year; to be a voter, you must have contributed to at least six commercially released tracks. To get in front of voters, some artists take part in the Grammy Museum's intimate onstage conversations. Styles, Julia Michaels, Zac Brown Band, Steve Martin, and Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie have all participated in those Q&As this fall – and they are all possible nominees for next year. "It heightens awareness of your act," says Bob McLynn, manager of Lorde, Sia, Green Day and others. "You do events throughout the year to garner favor, the same way an actor who's up for an Oscar will do a bunch of events for the Academy." Some artists are playing an even longer game; indie band the Head and the Heart visited the Grammy offices and played Tom Petty's MusiCares Person of the Year event earlier this year. While the band saw it only as a way to honor a hero, the event is considered a great way to get in front of likely voters. Adds someone close to the band, "When artists go on the road, you also try to see if they can do the Grammy school [programs], where kids ask them questions. Artists find it rewarding, and you become part of the fabric of the Grammys, and get in their newsletters."

There are also back-channel methods. Monique Grimme, co-owner of New Jersey indie label Bongo Boy Records, networked, gained access to a voter-only message board and several secret Facebook groups, and compiled a list of 8,000 probable voters. Clients can pay $125 for her to send an e-mail blast to her list, highlighting a group or artist. She says successes include indie performers like Fantastic Negrito, the Oakland singer who won 2017's Best Contemporary Blues Album. "We were trying to figure out how to differentiate ourselves," says Negrito's co-manager, Philip Green, adding that the e-mails were just one part of a long campaign. But a prominent label source warns these lists aren't reliable: "I feel so bad when folks hire those third-party people, because their lists are not reaching our members."

Portugal. The Man recently joined the Grammy push, taking out full-page ads in some major newspapers. "You have to have a profile during that [voting] period, otherwise people won't remember your record," says their manager, Rich Holtzman. Chance the Rapper did the same in 2016, paying huge for a full-page Billboard ad solely to reach that small voting pool. "At first I was like, 'People take out Grammy ads – why? That seems lame,' " Chance tweeted. "Then I was like ... 'I'm gonna make a bunch of these.' "