This is a Paid-For ROI Rant: Dear Grammy’s…

Where is the love? Show me the bling!

In this era of open online forums, in which igniting a media fest has never been faster, easier, or cheaper, it’s always fascinating to see what issue would warrant someone paying thousands of dollars, in this case allegedly $40,000, for a full-page ad/rant printed right smack dab in the middle of The New York Times Sunday newspaper—in the Style section, no less. And, no surprise, it always boils down to the politics of business.

In the NYT ad in question, Mr. Steve Stoute, president of Translation, a marketing firm that essentially brokers sponsorship deals between talents like Jay Z, Eminem, and Lady Gaga, as well as such top corporate brands as McDonald’s and GM, attacked the Grammys’ leadership in an “open letter.” He first criticized the organization’s archaic “peer-based” voting system, which according to Stoute, continuously spurns artists who are currently and culturally relevant by denying them their awards due. Yes, unfortunately, these annual shows do often leave you scratching your head over a call or two, especially when it appears judges are often correcting snubs from prior years. To this point, I can certainly sympathize with Stoute. After all, I have had a recurring twitch since 2000, when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) and the Grammys awarded the Album of the Year/Pop Vocal win to Steely Dan—passing over many far brighter spots, including Eminem for The Marshall Mathers LP. Irrespective of subjective tastes, what year in pop music were those voters living in?

More poignant to me were Stoute’s implications that the Grammys were, and are, quasi-staged. Referencing this year’s show specifically, he pointed out the “coincidence” of Arcade Fire’s two back-to-back performances. For those of you over 25, Arcade Fire is a Canadian alternative rock band that’s beloved by young hipsters and geeky music critics and bloggers (based on a mere three albums and one EP made since 2004) and that’s sold impressive numbers for an indie sensation produced by an indie record label (Merge). (The band even edged Eminem out of Billboard’s No. 1 album spot with its most recent album last summer.) But let’s be honest: Arcade Fire ain’t Kanye, ain’t Eminem, ain’t Cee Lo, ain’t even Steely Dan. Which is to say that, despite its status as an indie-darling sensation, the band was completely unknown to me and to most of mainstream America until last week. Stoute’s beef was less about that, though, and more about his belief that Grammy performances are planned and canned beforehand to coincide with Grammy wins. Arcade Fire performed its first song—surprise, surprise—right before the Album of the Year award was given out, which—surprise, surprise—the band won, and then—surprise, surprise—the band also happened to be spontaneously ready to perform a second song immediately after the win.

Stoute also attacked the Grammys’ marketing efforts: “Interesting that the Grammys understands cultural relevance when it comes to using Eminem’s, Kanye West’s, or Justin Bieber’s name in the billing to ensure viewership and to deliver the all-too-important ratings for its advertisers.”

The good news for Mr. Stoute is that the Billboard Awards, which are based on actual sales of records, are returning this May after a five-year hiatus. I’m sure many of the aforementioned talents, including Usher protégée Justin Bieber, who was also unfairly panned at the Grammys in Stoute’s estimation, will be properly acknowledged for their marketing prowess as well as command of the popular vote.

The not-so-great news is that the main intent of Stoute’s letter seems to indicate that some of the Grammy nominees, who performed at the expense of their record labels and whose talent and popularity were used to market the event itself and draw in more viewers, had “expectations” to win (bigger), and thereby felt “used.” Well, I get a little less sympathetic here. This seems rather like a Hollywood star bitching about presenting an Oscar on the same night as losing out on one in another category. Sour grapes, anyone? Really, isn’t this awards-show performance stuff the sort of mutual back-scratching that makes our imperfect world of marketing go round and round? Paid or not, brands (and that includes musical talents and related awards shows, currently and culturally relevant or not) piggyback off one another to gain traction. The cost of marketing is exactly that: a cost. And not every expenditure returns on its investment right away. Clinching more immediate concrete bling in the form of a Grammy is certainly a hoot, and yes, it’s good for business, but isn’t having the platform on a national stage, which also, for the record, spikes record sales, an equally just reward, especially since it simultaneously rewards fans with some highly sought after entertainment that’s free? And at some point, isn’t the audience deserving of an ROI, too? Point being, unless you drop the F-bomb—be it Cee Lo Green-style, Melissa Leo-style, or Christian Bale-style—presenting or performing on an awards show is only going to help expand your brand and, in turn, your sales and profits. (And if you do drop the F-bomb, if you do it right and in the right way, in point of fact, if we’re really being honest, it may not only expand your brand and your sales figures, but it may even bring them to unforeseen heights.)

Which brings us back to the $40K. Despite agreeing with some of Stoute’s observations, I couldn’t help but be left with the overriding feeling that that’s a lot of dough to spend on what is, in the end, awards-show kvetching. Spoiler alert: Awards shows and the related voting sometimes blow with the prevailing political winds of that industry, just like everything else. Take heart, Mr. Stoute. Diana Ross and Jimi Hendrix never won Grammys either. And Cary Grant never won an Oscar until he was old and the Academy gave him one of those generic lifetime achievement consolation prizes to compensate for decades of snubbing. Guess what? They all did just fine. Not only that, their brands and audiences are still around, too. Which is more than you can say for Steely Dan.

But it’s a free country, Stoute can spend $40K on whatever he wants if he can afford it, and yes, it’s possible his ad gets my hackles up 1) because it seems petty in these difficult economic times and 2) because I don’t have $40K to spend on that sort of luxurious indulgence.

But hey, that’s the way our imperfect world of marketing rolls. Currently and culturally.

Filed: branding, entertainment

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  • Great insights…I don’t think the audience cares who wins the awards, they just want to see the “show” so they have something to talk about the next day…and BTW- the Chrysler commercial was my favorite! Anything that promotes America building something again is ok with me…I guess I’m just a sucker for patriotism…


  • kwas

    I totally agree. And nothing wrong about being patriotic.


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