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Grammy Awards blow their own horn with nomination concert

December 3, 2008 | 10:37 pm

Aguilera_kbc501nc_400_4 The Grammy Museum will open downtown this weekend, but on Wednesday night the venerable awards brand was trying to prove it's no relic in this "American Idol" era.

The nominations for the 51st Annual Grammy Awards were announced Wednesday not at some early-morning news conference -- as they have been in the past -- but sprinkled in a one-hour prime-time special featuring performances by Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and other stars singing classic songs at the Nokia Theatre. It was a move that could be considered an entrenchment bid by a show that pulled its third-lowest audience ever this last February and its all-time lowest number in 2006.

"We are evaluating everything and, as this new nomination concert show proves, we are very open to doing new things that reach an audience and celebrate music," Recording Academy President Neil Portnow said.

New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne, British rock group Coldplay and the duo of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss were among the leading nominees, but producers of the ceremony are hoping that the big winner will be the Feb. 8 awards show itself, which has struggled much like the recordings industry that it honors and mirrors.

Album sales on CD and digital download are down a steep 14% from this point last year. Black Friday, the start of the all-important holiday sales season, saw a similar 13% decline from the 2007 shopping day. Sales have been in decline every year since 2004, and only two 2008 releases, albums by Coldplay and Lil Wayne, managed to go double-platinum, the industry term for selling 2 million copies.

None of that downbeat news was mentioned from the stage Wednesday during the telecast with the mouthful title of "Grammy Nominations Concert Live: Countdown to Music's Biggest Night." Carey opened the show by belting out "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," while Dion, dressed in black, sang Janis Ian's "At 17."

All of the songs performed Wednesday were Grammy Hall of Fame entries written before 1976 -- with the exception of a portion of a new song from country star Taylor Swift -- perhaps not the best way to connect with young music  fans. But the producers wanted a show that would dovetail with the spirit of Saturday's public opening of the Grammy Museum and also would avoid giving any nominated artists an edge with the Recording Academy's 17,000 voters.

Those voters will decide in upcoming weeks whether the album of the year award will go to "Raising Sand" by Plant and Krauss, "In Rainbows" by Radiohead, "Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends" by Coldplay, "Tha Carter III" by Lil Wayne or "Year of the Gentleman" by Ne-Yo.

The Radiohead nomination represented a sign of the times, considering the album was released first as a “pay-what-you-want” digital download.In the record of the year category, the especially prestigious award honoring an individual track, the nominations showed a decidedly British tilt, with three young female London natives nominated -- Adele for "Chasing Pavements," M.I.A. for "Paper Planes" and Leona Lewis for "Bleeding Love" -- as well as Coldplay for "Viva La Vida." The fifth nominee was trans-Atlantic: Plant, the rock demi-god of the 1970s with Led Zeppelin, is a Brit, but he teamed with American bluegrass queen Krauss on "Please Read the Letter."

Best new artist nominees are Adele, Jazmine Sullivan, Welsh singer-songwriter Duffy, the country group Lady Antebellum and the Jonas Brothers.

The Grammys seemed out of touch with the generation of fans that screamed loudly for the Jonas Brothers back in February when the show drew a historically meager audience of 17.5 million and then handed the album of the year award to 67-year-old Herbie Hancock for a jazz collection interpreting the songs of Joni Mitchell. It was, by all accounts, a sparkling work -- but had sold fewer than 40,000 copies.

The fact that the ratings sunk during the 50th anniversary edition of the Grammys show made it especially bruising, although Portnow said that was a product of the Hollywood writers strike and its chilling effect on television audiences. "Still," he said, "in a milestone year, you hope for milestone numbers."

The lowest numbers for any Grammy broadcast came in 2006, when the first hour of the ceremony aired opposite "American Idol." Head-to-head, the amateurs pulled in 28.3 million viewers while the pros settled for 15.1 million, a loud and clear signal that all-star trophy shows aren't as compelling to pop fans as contests that mint new stars.

Last month, the American Music Awards and Country Music Assn. Awards responded to the new landscape by jamming in more performances and spending less time on envelope-opening. For the Grammy brain trust, there has been talk of splitting the show into two nights, perhaps creating an entire show devoted to country music, for instance.

There is also a proposal to record the presentation of classical and jazz awards -- which are handed out in an off-the-air ceremony -- then packaging it with live performances for a stand-alone special, which might be of considerable interest to outlets such as PBS, A&E and Bravo.

"Right now anything that puts another hour of music on television is good for everybody in music," Portnow said. "When it comes to artists who have already established themselves and shown through their career and artistry that they deserve attention, there needs to be more of that on television right now."

That thinly veiled reference to the "Idol" worship might make Portnow sound a bit stuffy to young fans who are more interested in ringtones than CDs, but the Grammys are defiantly emphasizing their links to the past, which is why on Wednesday night viewers heard Christina Aguilera interpreting "I Loves You Porgy," a seven-decade-old song, and the Foo Fighters adding guitar crunch to the 1972 Carly Simon hit "You're So Vain."

The Grammy brand will benefit most if the nomination concert becomes a new tradition, giving the Recording Academy a second prime-time foothold. Ken Ehrlich, co-executive producer of the Grammys since the 1980s, hatched the idea for turning a roll-call news conference into a television music event, but he said the commercials sold for the show were only part of the appeal.

"I'm not shy about saying we're trying to build momentum toward that night in February," Ehrlich said. "These days, we'll do anything to light a fire."

Boucher is a Times staff writer.


(Photo Christina Aguilera courtesy Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)