The late Ahmet Ertegun — cofounder of Atlantic Records, and future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee — said that the purpose of the Rock Hall was "to dignify the people who made the music that has become as popular as any music has ever been."
Since 1986, the Hall of Fame has inducted 164 artists: everyone from pioneers — Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis — to the Sex Pistols and Grandmaster Flash. Each year, five more artists are inducted (along with a small number of nonperformers and sidemen) at a black-tie gala in the spring at New York's Waldorf-Astoria. (With two exceptions: It's been held twice in Cleveland, once in Los Angeles.)
After the Rock Hall was established in 1983, a nominating committee was formed that included the likes of Ertegun, producer Phil Spector, Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann S. Wenner, rock critic Dave Marsh and Sire Records founder Seymour Stein. Today, the committee has grown to 35 members — an evolving mix of musicians, industry figures and journalists (including this writer). That group nominates roughly 10 to 15 artists every year, which goes out to a larger body of more than 500 voters that features every artist who has ever been inducted. The five acts who receive the most votes in a secret ballot get into the Hall.
At the outset, the only rule was that an artist had to have released a record at least 25 years earlier to be inducted. "At first, it was obvious who should get in," says Wenner — masters such as Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Jon Landau, the head of the nominating committee — as well as Bruce Springsteen's manager and, from 1969 to 1973, Rolling Stone's first record reviews editor — says, "The criteria were deliberately left open."
Today, Landau describes them as "a mix of quality and influence." Most important is quality: how many great records an act made; how original they are; how well their music has aged. In measuring influence, the committee looks for other significant musicians who have been clearly inspired by the artist, as opposed to social importance or pure popularity. Unlike with sports halls of fame, statistics — record sales, ticket grosses — don't tell the story. "We have artists with mass appeal, and artists with a very narrow audience," says Landau.
Twenty-five years of inspiring music propelled U2 into the Rock Hall. Buddy Holly, who died at 22, got in with a small body of perfectly crafted songs that had a massive impact on artists from John Lennon to Jeff Tweedy. Buddy Guy is no hitmaker, but his explosive guitar style has affected a generation of players. Is Madonna a rock & roll artist? Her string of great songs, stubborn longevity and willingness to provoke were proof enough for the voters. Grandmaster Flash recorded half a dozen classic hip-hop singles and — perhaps more important — every hip-hop DJ owes him a debt for inventing techniques like scratching.
Once a year, the nominating committee sits down for a marathon three-hour-plus meeting. Each member advocates for no more than three artists. Subcommittees for specialties like hip-hop and metal present their recommendations. E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt fights for overlooked bands from the Fifties and Sixties. "It's very difficult for me to justify the Talking Heads being in before the Hollies," he said recently, "or Michael Jackson being in before Johnny Burnette."
Many committee members — managers, promoters and label execs — have a personal interest in the results. But as Landau points out, "It's not a group that can be easily swayed or intimidated." The committee's voting is also done by secret ballot to insulate members from undue influence.
That doesn't stop people from lobbying. Elton John wrote a powerful letter to the committee endorsing one of his idols, Leon Russell, to little effect. On the other hand, John Fogerty attended a meeting to argue passionately on behalf of guitarist Duane Eddy, who was later inducted.
This year, the nominees are a diverse list that includes the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Chantels. Kiss had been the subject of intense debate in the room — was the group truly important or just a sideshow? Finally, the band got its nomination. Landau also has sought to make the committee — mostly white men in their 40s, 50s and 60s — more diverse by bringing in more women, minorities and young people.
Whatever the issues, results have been impressive. "If you look at all the inductees from the beginning," Landau says, "any expert would come up with three to five mistakes. When I try that with various people, though, they rarely come up with the same three to five names. The real problem is that there are many people who deserve to be in the Hall of Fame who are not in — yet."
The backlog of early artists frustrates Van Zandt: "We'll never get them all in at this rate." Wenner, who heads the board of directors, has resisted adding more than five inductees a year. "I've had to be the curmudgeon and say no," he says. "There are plenty of years coming up. We're trying to do this for the history books. It can't be a popularity contest."
For all its problems, Landau finds the Rock Hall process deeply gratifying — and important. "The Hall of Fame has its critics," he says. "There are people who disdain it for a variety of reasons, and I've heard them all. But I've also heard artists walk into that induction ceremony and just say, 'Wow.' The Hall of Fame is a big place, physically and emotionally. Some artists feel unappreciated by it and knock it. At the same time, it's obvious how much they'd like to be in there."