Diana Ross has never won a Grammy. Nor have the Who or Jimi Hendrix, or hip-hop heroes Nas and Snoop Dogg, or modern stars Katy Perry and Björk.
Sir Georg Solti received a record 32 Grammy Awards but if you’re not into classical music, you’ve probably never heard of him. Kanye West, who makes sure that you know who he is, has grabbed 21 but he’s not happy because he’s never captured album of the year.
On what is billed as “Music’s Biggest Night,” Grammy Awards will be presented in 83 categories Monday at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
What does it mean to win a Grammy?
Prestige, of course, according to several Minnesota-connected winners.
“People listen to your music with their eyes, so if they see your Grammy certificate and platinum records, they think ‘he must be good,’ ” says Minneapolis singer/songwriter/producer Kevin Bowe, who has never scored a Grammy but boasts on his résumé that he wrote four songs on Etta James’ 2003 Grammy-winning blues album “Let’s Roll.”
A Grammy “bolstered my reputation,” says Stillwater producer/engineer Tom Voegeli, who triumphed in 1982 for producing a spoken-word album (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”) but admits his Peabody Awards probably mean more in his main field of radio broadcasting.
For musicians not on the Billboard charts, a Grammy victory is a validation for artistic effort. The prize also underscores the hard work of a record label, explained Eric Peltoniemi, president of St. Paul-based Red House Records, which released veteran singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s winning folk album in 1995. “It meant a lot to Jack. It was his first Grammy,” said Peltoniemi, co-producer of that record.
The stature of the Grammys means so much that last year Red House, a modest acoustic-oriented label, paid for its entire staff — all nine of them — to attend the ceremonies with nominated Red House artist Eliza Gilkyson.
“It was fun sitting there watching Beyoncé and everyone,” said Peltoniemi, a recording artist himself. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
While Red House was honored to receive a Grammy, putting that official “Grammy winner” sticker on Elliott’s album didn’t translate to “a huge bump in sales,” Peltoniemi pointed out. “But when you’re signing a new artist to [a small] label, it has a certain amount of cachet.”
Blowing up the niche
For an artist in a niche field like jazz or children’s music, a Grammy can create a splash and then momentum.
When the Twin Cities duo known as the Okee Dokee Brothers grabbed the kids’ music prize in 2013, “there was a flurry of press, Web traffic, tweets, Facebook posts, iTunes and Amazon peaks,” says Okee Joe Mailander. “But the real impact comes much later.”
For the Okee Dokees, the Grammy erased a stigma. “Parents are hesitant to give children’s music a try because they think it’s annoying, repetitive or cheesy,” Mailander said. “The Grammy allows parents to give us a try.”
And that has spurred more album and ticket sales. “The gigs do pay better and we do less gigs and focus more on recording and writing,” he said. “And we can afford three full-time staffers. We didn’t have any before. But the Grammy is not a golden ticket to a free ride to the top.”
Nonetheless, the Grammy’s value may be in terms of visibility and opportunities.
Landing a Grammy in 1992 catapulted Sounds of Blackness from a modest U.S. act to an international attraction.
“The Grammy gave us a different kind of credibility,” says Sounds director Gary Hines, whose group has won three Grammys in gospel categories. “We were at the World Cup and the Olympics and on tribute CDs to Rosa Parks and Curtis Mayfield.
“We were in the [recording] room doing Handel’s ‘Messiah’ with Johnny Mathis, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, the Fifth Dimension and others. And Quincy Jones, the producer, says ‘Where are the Sounds of Blackness? I’ll put you in the middle. You have all the parts.’ ”
For jazz composer/conductor Maria Schneider, a small-town girl who now lives in the big city, the Grammys led to exposure and credibility for the Windom-reared, New York-based artist.
“It’s a stamp of approval that makes you cross boundaries into audiences that aren’t the jazz audience,” said Schneider, who is nominated for two more this year including best arrangement, for a David Bowie song. “More promoters are willing to take a financial risk on me. I’m playing bigger halls and to bigger audiences. I’m sure the Grammy more than doubled my audience.”
Even nomination matters
Simply getting a nomination can make a difference. Take the case of Stephen Paulus, the prolific St. Paul composer of choral and classical music who died in October 2014. One of his pieces was nominated for best contemporary classical composition last year, and he received another nod in that field this year, plus two recordings featuring his compositions are finalists in other categories. (Another local nominee this year is rapper Allan Kingdom in two categories for collaborating with Kanye on “All Day.”)
“Online digital sales shot up the day he was nominated this year,” said Andrew Paulus, his son, who runs Paulus’ music company. “Sales went up 10 times and traffic to the [web]site tripled. Since his first nomination, we’ve seen social media — the Facebook page — grow by 150 percent.”
Some artists are more cynical about this annual dress-up-and-sing soiree — such as oft-nominated Garrison Keillor, who picked up a spoken-word prize in 1988.
“The Grammys is a beauty contest,” he said in an e-mail. “Most of the people who vote have not listened to what they’re voting on so the award means very little to the artist, but it’s a big TV spectacular so it means a lot to the general public. It’s a lot of hype and hoopla. What matters to your career is that you like working and you keep at it.”
Indeed, it is a TV show. And with only about a dozen award presentations during the 3½-hour broadcast, it’s often the performances that make the biggest impact at the Grammys — whether the stars receive an accolade or not.
For Bobby Z, performing on the Grammy Awards in 1985 with Prince & the Revolution was more thrilling than taking home two trophies.
In his post-Prince career as a producer, he said the Grammy is a “calling card” but his association with Prince carries more weight than any prize they’ve won.
Alan Leeds worked for Prince for years as a tour manager and Paisley Park Records executive. He earned a Grammy in ’92 for co-writing the liner notes for “StarTime,” a boxed set for James Brown, for whom he was once tour manager. The Grammy is hardly a résumé builder when you’re a talent manager like Leeds, but he welcomes the recognition for his creative contributions.
However, there is something about his Grammy experience that Leeds treasures even more than the statue.
“After we won, James Brown signed my copy of the booklet, Alan, thanks for helping with OUR Grammy,” Leeds reports. “I’ve often said that if, God forbid, my house catches fire, I’ll save the booklet before the trophy.”