For more than half a century the Grammy Awards have been the pinnacle institution of American music. (But that doesn't mean the tone of the show and the brand itself have to be institutional.) While the Grammys showcase a smorgasbord of chart-topping tweens, pop sensations, musical legends, and iconic performances, the award ceremony has for the most part projected an ostensibly parochial air -- one difficult for even the most die-hard music fans to penetrate in order to feel included.
This year, the people behind the Grammys wanted to set the record straight by spreading the message that "We're All Fans." Determined to prove the Grammys really are hipper than your grandparents, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which administers the Grammys, launched a major push in social media outreach, including a sleek new open source Web site, community blogging, live streamed red carpet footage, a Grammy iPhone app, and a destination site for user-generated content called WereAllFans.com.
On Friday, the Academy parlayed the online buzz into offline dialogue and hosted the first Social Media Rock Stars Summit, a panel discussion on the convergence of music and the social Web. Moderated by CNN's Rick Sanchez, the panel featured actor/musician Jared Leto, Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore, Digg founder Kevin Rose, Senior Project Manager for YouTube Music Nikhil Chandhok, and Tumblr Founder David Karp.
Just as the recording industry learned to accept the Internet's omniscient power after a bloody tug-of-war match with the juggernaut file-sharing service Napster a decade ago, music moguls and artists are discovering that social media isn't going anywhere. With major artists such as Lady GaGa, John Mayor, Wyclef Jean, Alicia Keyes, and others using social media to communicate directly with their fans, the music industry can either dive into the Twitter stream and swim, or stand still and stagnant offline.
As Cashmore put it, the Grammys and every award show "needs to get fans engaged to become a primary distribution channel. They need fans to rebroadcast the Grammy message, to retweet it, and to be sharing it on Facebook.
"The audience is leaving TV to some extent," continued Cashmore. "These award ceremonies are struggling to maintain the kind of sense of grandeur that comes with everyone watching the same thing on TV all the time, and I think you can recapture that with social media. When people see trending topics on Twitter about live events, they tend to gravitate toward those things. They want to have a shared experience."
Barb Dehgan, The Recording Academy's Vice President of Communications and Media Relations, said the artists involved in the Grammys' social media campaign jumped on the idea as soon as it was presented to them.
"Lady GaGa posted the We're All Fans ad on her Web site and tweeted it to her fans," said Dehgan. "That spot has been viewed more than 1.5 million times, and it's only been out for two or three weeks. It really makes a statement about where music is today and how much of an impact social media has on the music industry."
When an audience member asked panelist Kevin Rose what he thought of artists who don't use social media tools, Rose responded forthrightly: "Honestly, I think they're screwed."
In fact, all five panelists agreed that in the next five to 10 years if musicians want to be successful they must engage in social media.
Leto and his band 30 Seconds to Mars have harnessed social networking to enhance their studio productions.
"A thousand people [became] part of [our] recording process," said Leto. "I got a Twitter message from someone in Iran who was frustrated they couldn't come. We came up with a program that allowed them to sit at home and participate. It's a world of chaos at times. But there are lessons. It's a fertile ground for creativity."
At the end of the day, the Grammy Awards ceremony is a televised broadcast and brings in ratings. It goes without saying that since its inception, the Internet has progressively pulled viewers away from TV. So what does this mean for Grammy numbers?
Cashmore says social media will increase ratings. "They're not live streaming the show yet, but I think you can recapture that engagement by having more content online," he opined. "I think you can push people back to TV."
He added that he sees the long-term trend being centered around more online consumption.
"That's going to be the biggest challenge; how can you live stream award shows with all the licensing restrictions that are in your way?" said Cashmore. "But I think we're going to see a transition, and you're going to be able to watch the Grammys at some point wherever you want to."
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Whatever happens from this award season forward, one thing is for sure, music fans are at the forefront of digital culture. Dehgan says The Recording Academy found that music fans communicate via social media more than consumers of any other entertainment medium. Where the fans go, the artists follow. And when the artists go there, the business model must follow suit.
"We're all fans of music," said Dehgan. "We should all be part of the conversation."