Awards, Shows and Award Shows

Chris Neal | March 2nd, 2011

“It is as though instead of a dog wagging its tail, the tail should wag the dog. And all Nature would stand aghast before such an improper spectacle.”

– Elizabeth von Arnim, 1907

An award show offers an invaluable opportunity for the great entertainers of our day to be celebrated by their peers, and for the artistic community to come together in a display of support for their common mission of enlightening the human condition. These shows serve to elevate the best and brightest we have to offer, be it musicians, actors or what have you. They zero in on the highest-quality art that is being produced, and offer a stamp of approval to what will surely someday be seen as the greatest works of our age. Awards are meaningful because they are proof positive that the person or people receiving them are at the very pinnacle of artistic worth. That is why award shows exist, and why there seem to be more and more of them all the time.
Isn’t it?

Consider the 53rd annual Grammy Awards, given out a couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles. The press and social media were abuzz about the awards themselves—who got the most? (Lady Antebellum.) What were the big surprises? (Esparanza Spalding winning Best New Artist, Arcade Fire winning Album of the Year.) But the reason that awards shows have proliferated over the decades to an almost absurd number lies in a set of barely-noticed numbers released about a week and a half after the show. It’s when you look at those that you see who the real Grammy winners were: the acts that saw the biggest sales boosts during the week following their appearances. Mumford & Sons saw sales of their album Sigh No More rise 169 percent compared to the previous week; sales of Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now grew by more than 200%; Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs benefited from a 238% increase in sales; the previously little-noticed Spalding’s Chamber Music Society saw a 476 percent sales jump.

This is the simple reason that awards shows are so numerous, and why artists find it worth their while to attend and—most importantly—to perform. The real prize isn’t the trophy itself, it’s the exposure. Winning is great for business, but performing is even better: Mumford & Sons won nothing, but their performance helped new fans to discover them. Katy Perry walked away with no awards, but digital sales of the two songs she performed went way up. Eminem won only two awards out of 12 nominations, but sales of his latest album, Recovery, grew by 60 percent. Lady Antebellum surprised observers by dominating the awards, taking home almost every prize for which they were nominated, but it’s more likely that their performance of “Need You Now” was primarily responsible for their sales boost the following week.

An award looks great on the mantel, but at a time when the music industry is undergoing a slow-motion implosion there’s no substitute for selling an extra few thousand records—and that’s what an award-show performance promises. It’s why, during one of my first assignments after joining the staff of Country Weekly in 2000, a singer I was sent to interview took the opportunity to harangue me about the fact that his band had not been invited to appear on the award show the magazine co-sponsored at the time. A guaranteed (and much-needed) opportunity for a guaranteed sales boost had eluded his grasp, and he wanted to let me know that it hadn’t escaped his notice.

Now that all that cynical stuff has been aired out, let’s be clear: It’s not as if awards are valueless in and of themselves, or that they entirely lack value as a metric for one’s standing among one’s peers (or the public, depending on who does the voting). If the Grammy voters had been inclined to honor … oh, let’s say, my epic liner notes for The Very Best of Confederate Railroad, I’m sure I would have been pleased as punch. (The Best Album Notes category was mysteriously omitted that year, perhaps due to the sheer unfairness of pitting my masterpiece of historical excavation against far lesser works. That’s my theory, anyway.) If there was no monetary gain to be had by winning an award, artists would likely vie for them anyway. But in the long view, the most important part of award shows isn’t the awards—it’s the show. Televised award shows are a win-win for everyone involved: Honorees and performers get a place in the national spotlight, TV and online outlets get a large audience, and that in turn pleases advertisers.

There are at least a few institutions in the award-show culture that predate the attention of a mass audience. The first Academy Awards ceremony occurred at around the time of the invention of television itself, but it wasn’t broadcast until 1960 with the 32nd annual Oscars. The first Country Music Association Awards were given out in 1967, with TV cameras absent; the second annual ceremony wasn’t broadcast until weeks after it occurred. The Grammys always had a TV presence, but weren’t broadcast live until the ceremony had been around for a dozen years. These honors and many others boast rich histories that keep them from ever seeming an entirely cynical exercise, but each newly invented award and each newly established ceremony takes a little bit of the luster off them all. Any award ceremony that exists primarily to be broadcast and monetized at least deserves scrutiny from artists and fans alike, and it’s not that difficult to do the math. The next time you begin to get swept up in a passionate argument about an award show, ask yourself: Is this event necessary? Is it about the award or the show? Is the dog wagging its tail, or is the tail wagging the dog?

  1. Waynoe
    March 2, 2011 at 8:42 am

    Uh…o.k. I think I get the general meaning of this. I think.

  2. Kari
    March 2, 2011 at 8:54 am

    Interesting theory…

  3. numberonecountryfan
    March 2, 2011 at 9:38 am

    First, I gotta get me a copy of The Very Best Of Confederate Railroad.
    Second, this piece was well written and thought out. We ‘need’ award shows like we ‘need’ another hole in the head. The artists themselves ‘need’ them to pat each other on the back (and make fools of themselves in the process).
    Finally, I would love to see an awards show that is heavy on the awards themselves. Too many performances take away from who is actually winning. Let’s face it, you can see your favorites perform at any time, but when they receive an award, it puts them in a different spotlight in terms on how they handle themselves. For the C.M.A. and A.C.M. awards, when they finally get to Entertainer of the Year, you are lucky to get a few minutes out of the winner to express their thanks for receiving such a prestigious honor.

  4. Jon
    March 2, 2011 at 10:38 am

    It’s a fairly well established fact that most viewers tune in to see performances; cut those and up the number of “thanks to my manager and my mom” speeches and all you do is guarantee tune-out, which neither pays the bills nor helps the artists.

    More generally, I would only point out that the purposes of honoring winners and serving up entertaining performances don’t have to be contradictory, and that’s especially so when it comes to music awards events focused more narrowly than are the Grammys; even with all the qualifications about process, naming a set of artists and/or recordings as the best a genre has to offer, along with solid performances by nominees and other appropriate figures is a good way of increasing viewers’ familiarity with said genre. I don’t know that fan-voted awards mean quite as much to winners as do peer-voted ones, but that’s kind of an ancillary issue.

  5. Barry Mazor
    March 2, 2011 at 11:22 am

    There is always tremendous TV network pressure to stick with the pre-sold tried and true on these award shows. (For those saddened when the Hall of Fame inductions left the CMAs, did you notice that the lifetime achievement type awards at the Oscars the other night, including even Francis Coppola, were now down to the “here’s a fast wave from Carl Smith, whoever he is” level? Next–no nod to film history at all.)

    It seems to me to be in the best interest of any musical genre that gets these telecasts–and none get them the way country does, of course–to push back against that “same eight performers, repeatedly” formula enough to give exposure to potential next big things that need the exposure.

    It’s 25 years later, and I can still recall the set of three new youngsters brought out on the Grammys in 1986, in the middle of the great Credibility Scare, as cool new acts to be watching next. They walked out together, and each sang a verse and a chorus each: Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, and Steve Earle.

    We ought to be doing that still, and the CMA/AMA/new third award show producers ought to demand that OF the networks they make so much money. for. Clout is as clout is unafraid to do.

  6. Jon
    March 2, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Barry, you think the networks need the awards shows more than the organizations handing out the awards need the networks? Everything I know about the matter says it’s the other way around, and in general – that is, allowing for exceptions and actual negotiations from time to time – the clout is with the networks. I’m not naming any names, but I know that at least one organization with a televised awards show makes about 90% of its annual revenue in that one night.

  7. Barry Mazor
    March 2, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    I know which one you mean, Jon, but a number of organizations (real organizations and also alleged ones–Hollywood Foreign Press Association, anyone? ) make that percentage of their money from one night, and yep, the broadcasters know that.

    I also think the math keeps evolving, and alternatives to going to the over-the-air national/international networks increasing. Meanwhile, those shows are not on in prime time for nothing–any more than (some) sports events are. They are valuable to the broadcasters. They want to reach those demographics.

    So I’m just saying that there’s leverage–but there’s also under-leveraged leverage.

  8. luckyoldsun
    March 2, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Whether or not a network TV awards show is going to give airtime to an induction/achievement award would seem to depend a lot on who the honoree is.

    If you’re honoring Willie Nelson or Dolly Parton–whom the viewers are probably familiar with and even care about–it may make sense to give over a segment to it and reprise their careers.
    If you’re honoring Carl Smith or Connie Smith–whom an exceedingly small percentage of viewers have heard of or care about–you’re not going to cede much airtime for it.

  9. Chris N.
    March 2, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Back in the day, network award shows would feature long segments about Hall of Fame-type honors, and the Grammys would give over entire segments to jazz and classical and whatnot — I’m sure they were always ratings poison, but they were tolerated in the interest of maintaining integrity. Now every year the networks are fighting for a smaller and smaller slice of the entertainment pie, as alternatives to network television (internet, video games, etc.) keep growing.

    Given that, it’s ironic that the only thing that keeps me watching these shows now is that it’s fun to follow what people are saying about them on Twitter, Facebook and liveblogs.

  10. Jon
    March 2, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    If you’re honoring Willie Nelson or Dolly Parton–whom the viewers are probably familiar with and even care about–it may make sense to give over a segment to it and reprise their careers.

    It might make even more sense to have them perform, preferably with other stars whom viewers are familiar with and even care about.

    Barry, the networks certainly get something out of those broadcasts, but they can walk away from them with much less damage than can the organizations. So the latter are in a position to ask for stuff, and even ask repeatedly or stubbornly, but demand? Not so much. And the alternatives to broadcast are still pretty weak in comparison. I have been over the math for such things many times.

  11. Jon
    March 2, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Back in the day, network award shows would feature long segments about Hall of Fame-type honors, and the Grammys would give over entire segments to jazz and classical and whatnot — I’m sure they were always ratings poison, but they were tolerated in the interest of maintaining integrity.

    Dunno about that integrity part, the tools for measuring viewership were much blunter instruments back in the day.

    Now every year the networks are fighting for a smaller and smaller slice of the entertainment pie, as alternatives to network television (internet, video games, etc.) keep growing.

    Yep.

  12. Rick
    March 2, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    I never watch awards shows of any type as I’ve developed a serious allergy to pop culture “events” in general and get nauseous if I get to close to such things. On the other hand I do enjoy snarky live blogs of such shows as I get entertained without having to hear the mediocre music featured! The best live blogs these days come from Rita Ballou and her Merry Band of Whores! Go Rita!

  13. Waynoe
    March 2, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    @Rick – Preach it brother. Is there a difference between any of them anymore? Me thinks no. They are all crap-trash.

  14. TXmusicjim
    March 3, 2011 at 10:05 am

    The americana honors and awards that have been broadcast on GAC the last few years were rather “old school” in how they prsented there lifetime Acheivement awards is was refreshing. albeit to a much smaller audience than the CMA’s ETC. However, with the rise of alternative media things will evolve over the next 10-20 years quite a bit.

  15. Chris Manson
    March 3, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    Would have been nice if they’d presented more than, what, a dozen on-air Grammys out of the hundred or so categories… might have been nice to have Best Zydeco Album winner Chubby Carrier on national TV, no?

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