Does a Grammy Win Live Up to the Hype for Classical Musicians?

The Grammy rarely loses that headline status. But just how powerful is this perceived value for classical musicians?

By Brian Wise | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine

There was a time, a generation ago, when classical musicians appeared on the televised ceremony of the Grammy Awards to collect their prizes, albeit briefly and often after an announcer stumbled over a composer’s name. Since the genre was moved to the earlier, pre-telecast event (along with most other non-major pop categories), you’d think the Grammys would have little standing left in the classical field.

You’d be wrong. Look at the official biography of any Grammy Award–winning soloist or string quartet, and chances are the award appears in the first paragraph or even in the first sentence. Even a nomination will earn prime bio placement, above a New York Times quote or a prestigious debut.

The Grammy rarely loses that headline status. But just how powerful is this perceived value?

Daniel Chong, a violinist in the Parker String Quartet, says that his ensemble’s 2011 Grammy continues to be a calling card. “Nine times out of ten, we’re prefaced at a concert as the ‘Grammy-winning Parker Quartet,’” he says. The quartet, which has a residency at Harvard University, won the Grammy for its debut release of Ligeti’s complete string quartets.

“Saying that somebody is nominated or has won a Grammy is a very quick and easy validation,” says Chris Williams, a senior vice president at Concert Artists Guild, which manages early-career musicians. “It’s probably the easiest. Saying they debuted at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center—none of that means as much to people.”

Both maligned and coveted, the Grammy Awards, set to be awarded this year on January 26 in Los Angeles, are a sign of mass cultural recognition for a classical field that enjoys very few. A nomination alone can stimulate album sales, concert bookings, and the potential for future awards. But like all red-carpet season prizes, the Grammys are competitive, and awards often go to artists who have developed extensive networks and promotional strategies.

Parker String Quartet

Getting Noticed by Grammy Voters

In pop-music categories, artists and labels have gone to increasingly extreme lengths to get in front of Grammy voters. Last season, Camila Cabello, a singer-songwriter, drew headlines after taking out a 40-foot billboard in Los Angeles with her image and the words “For Your Consideration.” With the stakes much lower, classical labels rarely buy “FYC” advertisements in Billboard or other trade magazines. But recording executives say that a focused outreach campaign can help cut through the clutter of more than 2,000 classical submissions per year, which vie for top honors in eight performance-based categories.

“The best way of ensuring a nomination and eventually a win starts with mobilizing your base—provided that base contains Academy members—and asking them to consider your recording,” says Sean Hickey, a senior vice president at Naxos and a member of the Grammy steering committee for classical music. “I don’t think there is much more magic besides that.”


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As a peer-awarded prize, the makeup of your base matters. “The artists that have been the most successful are the ones who have done a lot of collaboration,” says Julia Nicols-Corry, director of operations at Cedille Records in Chicago. “They know a lot of other artists, or their album features artists in other genres that might get behind it.”

Nicols-Corry cites Eighth Blackbird, an ensemble that has won four Grammys on Cedille, most recently for Filament, a 2015 album containing works by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and Philip Glass—composers with a certain indie-rock clout. “That was very helpful for their Grammy win,” she said. “They also are a known quantity and people recognize them on the Grammy ballot.”

Filament received a modest sales bump that lasted nearly a year.

Some observers say it helps to release an album close to the fall nomination period so that it’s fresh in voters’ minds; others maintain that early-year releases can gain more traction by garnering reviews and placement on streaming-service playlists. Regardless, overt solicitation of votes will lead to immediate disqualification by the Recording Academy. (A “for your consideration” tweet is acceptable; a fruit basket sent to voters is not.)

Officially, voting membership in the Academy is a secret and involves several stages. A committee composed of members from the Academy’s chapter cities screens the nominations before members vote on a final ballot and accountants tabulate the results.

Last year, the Aizuri Quartet, from New York, received a nod for its debut album, Blueprinting, featuring premiere recordings of works by five American composers. “The quartet and our label, New Amsterdam Records, were very careful about not soliciting voting members directly,” says cellist Karen Ouzounian in an e-mail. “We sent a newsletter to our fan base and shared a few ‘for your consideration’ posts on social media, but the nomination was a big surprise to us.” 

The Grammy Awards have periodically drawn criticism among classical musicians and labels. In 2012, four categories for the genre were eliminated, including Best Classical Album. The Best Chamber-Music Performance category was dropped and has since been replaced with one for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance. It’s a semantic difference, perhaps, but string quartets and piano trios have been less dominant since the change.


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Emerson String Quartet

“It’s gotten too watered down,” says Lawrence Dutton, violist of the Emerson String Quartet, which has clinched nine Grammys since 1989, including multiple wins for its Bartók and Shostakovich quartet cycles. “Not to have a chamber-music category is an insult to what we do. It’s absurd, it’s obscene. They have all kinds of categories for rap music. I wish they would wake up and give classical music a little more help.”

The Emerson had won the Best Classical Album category twice, in 1990 and in 2001, making it the only string quartet to win the prize. “Sadly, the Grammys didn’t think that was a worthy category anymore,” Dutton adds.

Even greater scrutiny has trailed the Best Orchestral Performance category. There were accusations of block voting by members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra when it was suddenly nominated for 12 Grammys, and won five, for two different recordings in 1986 (the ensemble vehemently denied this). And to this day, albums that secure top European prizes—Germany’s Opus Klassik, France’s Diapason d’Or, and the Gramophone Awards—at times seem to escape Grammy voters’ attention.

The Impact of a Grammy

Still, for every complaint about alleged biases by voters, there is evidence that a Grammy generates a notable bump in audio streams, downloads, and even CD sales.

When the Kronos Quartet’s Landfall won a Grammy last year for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance, album sales were “well into triple-digit percentage gains,” a spokesperson for Nonesuch Records says. Kronos violinist David Harrington says that he wasn’t entirely aware of this, but he valued the “mystique and legendary aspect” of the prize. “It becomes part of a conversation in a way that other sorts of recognition don’t,” he says. “It focuses attention on the body of work as well.”


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Edward Dusinberre, first violinist of the Takács Quartet, recalls how the ensemble’s 2002 recording of Beethoven’s middle quartets “sold extremely well” after it won a Grammy. “That sold better than all previous projects that we did for Decca,” he says. “I ended up writing a book on the quartets based on that success [Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets]. Winning the Grammy was a reaffirmation of our connection to those quartets.”

Another side benefit comes in the form of concert bookings. Programmers of university performing-arts series may bring a theater or dance background to their jobs but have less familiarity with classical music. Yet a musician with a Grammy credit will get their attention. Violinist James Ehnes says that after he won a 2007 Grammy for his recording of Barber, Korngold, and Walton concertos with the Vancouver Symphony, other orchestras took note. “With those three pieces, I played them a lot,” he observes. “I’m guessing a lot of that came out of that Grammy victory.”

Ehnes last year won his second Grammy for a recording of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto with the Seattle Symphony. That was slightly less of a surprise, he says, because of Seattle’s track record at the awards. “The first Grammy was a huge surprise because it was a project with a Canadian Orchestra for CBC records,” he says. “I certainly know that an orchestra like the Seattle Symphony has had success at the Grammys before.”

The Seattle recording was released on Onyx, one of four independent labels in that category in 2018 (only violinist Joshua Bell’s recording of Bruch’s music for Sony represented a major label). Indie recordings have moved up in recent years, but a larger question still remains: whether an audio recording is still the most effective vehicle for an artist’s creativity.

“These days I’m kind of encouraging artists to skip recordings; I’d rather they put their money and time into doing music videos,” says Williams of Concert Artists Guild. “I really feel it’s the wave of the future. Of course, artists always want to record. There’s something satisfying about signing a CD and handing it to someone. I mean, we are dealing with artists and egos.”

Others insist that artists should focus on making music that resonates as their top strategy. “My advice is: don’t try and work the system,” says Dusinberre. “It leads to unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Work on developing your voice as a group, and that will be noticed. Focus on the message you have, and on representing the music you feel most passionate about.”