Today, The Recording Academy announced that streaming-only releases will now be eligible for consideration for Grammy nominations, one of five big changes that will be implemented immediately. The 59th annual Grammy Awards are set to take place February 12, 2017.
“Our trustees felt like the time had come; it’s been on our radar for a couple of years now,” said Recording Academy SVP of Awards Bill Freimuth about the change in attitude away from retail-only releases. “The goal was to include recordings that were worthy of Grammy consideration that were streaming-only — which, it turns out, were a pretty small number — and exclude the 12-year-old singing a Beyonce cover into her comb that’s easy to put up online also these days for streaming.”
That distinction comes in a tweak to the Academy’s definition of “general distribution,” which had previously been defined as “sales by label to a branch or recognized independent distributor, via the internet, or mail order/retail sales for a nationally marketed product.” The new language expands that definition to include “applicable streaming services,” which themselves are qualified as “paid subscription, full catalogue, on-demand streaming/limited download platforms that have existed as such within the United States for at least one full year as of the submission deadline.”
Under the new guidelines, any recording released to at least one of the “majors” of the space — Spotify (due to its paid tier), Apple Music, Tidal, or Google Play, for example — would qualify as a release in general distribution. Recordings released exclusively via Pandora, which has not yet launched an on-demand service, or Soundcloud Go, which only debuted at the end of March and would not have a full year under its belt by the September 30 cutoff, would not be eligible; similarly, smaller genre-specific streamers would not pass the “full catalogue” litmus test. YouTube-only releases are also ineligible, as would mixtapes released for free via sites such as Datpiff or LiveMixtapes that are not also available elsewhere.
“We think that [language] is actually a key to making this work for us and should really accomplish that goal of making sure that the artists who, I guess primarily for philosophical reasons, are releasing through streaming only, that they’re eligible while excluding still most, if not all, the amateur recordings,” Freimuth said.
The streaming news will be welcome to artists such as Chance the Rapper, whose fervent calls for the Academy to consider free music was backed up by his latest release, Coloring Book, which became the first ever streaming-only release to chart on the Billboard 200 in May. Coloring Book, which debuted at No. 8 with all of its 38,000 equivalent album units coming from 57.3 million first-week streams, remained an Apple Music exclusive for two weeks before being released wide to Spotify, Tidal and other services. The rule amendment will make Chance eligible for Grammy consideration for the first time as a lead artist.
As streaming becomes the dominant music consumption platform — it became the biggest single source of revenue for the U.S. music industry in 2015, according to the RIAA — the battle between services over exclusive releases and windowing has heated up, particularly between Apple Music and Tidal. But a hypothetical non-windowed, streaming-only exclusive for a single service — for instance, if Chance had never released Coloring Book wide and kept it on Apple Music in perpetuity — would still be eligible under the general distribution guidelines.
“We actually had a lot of discussion about that,” Freimuth said, noting that Walmart retail exclusives were eligible in the past. “We feel that that thinking is consistent with precedent.”
Read more about all the changes, including how the RIAA is modernizing its Rap, R&B, and Blues awards categories, on Billboard.