The Cajun/Zydeco Grammy Dilemma

When the 2008 Grammy Award winners are announced Feb. 10, 2008, it's supposed to be a shining moment for Acadiana and Louisiana, as the first winner in the newly instituted Cajun/zydeco Grammy category will be crowned. But if one scenario plays out, the big winner will be the other LA — Los Angeles — and we'll be stuck with stale king cake on our face five days after Mardi Gras.

King Cake is the title of Los Angeles-based fiddler Lisa Haley's recent album, which is nominated as "Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album" alongside Geno Delafose & French Rockin' Boogie's Le Cowboy Creole; The Lost Bayou Ramblers' Live: Á La Blue Moon; the Pine Leaf Boys' Blues De Musicien; Roddie Romero And The Hub City All-Stars' The La Louisianne Sessions; Terrance Simien & The Zydeco Experience's Live! Worldwide; and Racines for their self-titled release.

It will be a travesty and major embarrassment if California's Haley wins the Cajun/zydeco Grammy, which is why — despite serious reservations about the Grammy Awards and their relevance these days — I'm renewing my membership with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Annual membership costs $100; to become a voting member of the Academy, you must have credits on six commercially released tracks. This applies to creative and technical professionals including vocalists, musicians, producers, engineers, conductors, arrangers, art directors, album notes writers (that's how I qualify), narrators, and music video artists and technicians. Associate and affiliate non-voting memberships are also available for music retailers, attorneys, educators, students and more. I've always thought it's disappointing that some of the most knowledgeable potential voters — the fans who buy albums and attend concerts — aren't eligible to vote at least in some capacity. The Grammy Awards, however, are billed as honors given by musicians' peers.

But if some of your peers are clueless, have an agenda or are adept at politicking, that's where the Grammy Awards can be hijacked. A purely hypothetical example: a musician in Los Angeles, home to extensive music-industry infrastructure and a large swath of Grammy voters, could work the phones and ask friends and associates to vote for his or her album. And if they're competing in a category with a smaller pool of voting members — say, Louisiana NARAS members — you can guess what might happen. On a purely local level, the same axiom holds: a 10-piece Louisiana band with more voting members and friends has a better chance out of the gate of winning the Grammy than a five-piece Louisiana band.

That's just one of the reasons I've let my NARAS membership lapse for the last five years, because the honor system of voting for the best album in each category can be manipulated. On other fronts, most major record labels have done little to endear themselves to consumers in the past decade. With the advent of the CD format, record labels reissued their catalogs on CD at price points designed to maintain profit levels, charging customers in the neighborhood of $20 to repurchase albums they already had on vinyl or cassette. Then when music started showing up on the Internet on trading sites like Napster and Kaaza, they acted like a wailing giant behemoth, with the Recording Industry of America even suing a 65-year-old Massachusetts grandmother who'd never even heard of file-sharing for copyright violations. Protecting artists' intellectual property is a serious issue, but the major record labels lost a lot of supporters with their hamfisted responses. And as the industry spiraled downward while record companies tried to figure out a plan, a lot of the backbone and heart of the industry — independent retailers, publicists, promoters, etc. — went out of business.

If I sound like a broken-record nattering nabob of negativity, here's why I'm renewing my NARAS membership: I'd hate to see NARAS' and the Grammys' shortcomings outweigh the many positive things they do. In the past two years, through the NARAS' MusiCares Hurricane Relief Fund, the Music Rising program and Grammy Foundation preservation grants, nearly $4 million has been dispersed to music professionals and organizations affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In addition to its hurricane relief efforts, NARAS recently named Reid Wick as NARAS' Gulf Coast membership coordinator. I've known longtime New Orleans educator and musician Wick for more than a decade, and if there's anyone who can beef up NARAS' musician outreach and professional development programs in Louisiana, it's him. Free NARAS seminars and programming, along with various industry discounts, are all benefits of membership.

And more important, even if the Grammys' stature has waned in recent years, winning a Cajun/zydeco Grammy Award can only serve to possibly help local artists, through increased industry recognition.

In 1989, The Grammys suffered one of its biggest embarrassments when Jethro Tull won Best Heavy Metal album — over Metallica. Let's hope we don't have a similar result when the winner of the first Cajun/zydeco Grammy is announced Feb. 10.

For more info on the Grammy Awards or to become a member of NARAS, visit www.grammy.com or e-mail Reid Wick at [email protected].