The Grammys have been criticized for many reasons. From the gross display of ostentatious wealth, to the lack of diversity, to the Recording Academy‘s history of snubbing artists, music’s biggest night seems to many to be nothing more than a garish evening of industry back-patting. According to a recent study, however, the Grammys might actually have a positive impact on music by encouraging the artists who win them to pursue more innovative creative paths.
Published in the American Sociological Review in April 2022, the study, entitled What’s Next? Artists’ Music After Grammy Awards, demonstrates that after an artist wins a Grammy, their next release tends to be less mainstream with regard to “musical styles and sonic content,” making them “more likely to pursue unique creative paths.” Researchers determined this by using a neural learning approach to analyze “artistic differentiation of albums of award winners from albums of other artists” and their previous work.
What they found was that artists were more innovative and produced more unique music following a Grammy win. “In panel regression estimates, we find that after winning a Grammy, artists tend to release albums that stand out more stylistically from other artists,” the abstract reads.
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Grammy Awards, in other words, open doors for the artists who win them not just in their careers, but in their creative processes. Symbolic awards grant musicians license to pursue unique creative paths and become more themselves, rather than worrying about what’s popular or what other artists are doing. The result is increased artistic autonomy and more experimental music, which in turn creates a bigger variety of musical styles for listeners to enjoy.
On the flip side, the study also found that artists who received Grammy nominations but did not win actually became more mainstream, or similar to other artists, than they were before the nomination. This has the opposite effect of reducing musical variety. Seeing as only one nominee can actually win each award, that means most of the artists nominated for Grammys in any given year become less creative as a result, and this might actually outweigh the positive effects the awards have on the winners.
The study stops short of judging whether the Grammys are good or bad for music, concluding only that “symbolic awards can regularly induce change and affect the heterogeneity of cultural products.” It begs the question, though, are the Grammys and the countless other music award shows creating a world where every artist sounds the same, or are they empowering artists to produce inspired creations they would otherwise be too afraid or constrained to pursue? Apparently, the answer is both.