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Judge dismisses effort to reverse Grammy award reductions

April 30, 2012 |  3:18 pm

 Bobby Sanabria
Long a target of debate and criticism, the Grammy Awards this year had to deflect an attack from a block of its core constituency: the artists. Musicians and music activists cried foul after the Recording Academy slashed its number of award categories from 109 to 78, reducing and consolidating its R&B, American roots music, classical, Latin, jazz, country, pop and rock fields.

Those still hoping for a reversal of this decision were dealt a serious blow as a New York judge dismissed a suit aimed at forcing the Recording Academy to rescind the changes. Latin jazz musician Bobby Sanabria was one of those behind the suit, arguing that the cuts would hurt an artist's career and unfairly targeted niche categories. Sanabria said Monday that he and his lawyers would be reviewing the judge's decision and intended to file an appeal. 

"The reason we did this is because we believe in the academy," Sanabria said. "This past year, all of us were left out in the lurch -– all of the people eliminated in terms of 31 categories. You can’t have 6,000 musicians competing for one Grammy. You could, theoretically have that, but it’s just unfair. For example, the traditional roots music category is about six different genres of music, and you have Latin jazz competing against traditional jazz and contemporary jazz. It’s ridiculous. It devalues the music."

When the Recording Academy unveiled the changes last spring, seven Latin categories had been condensed to four. The American roots music field also had been heavily trimmed, going from nine categories to five, doing away with best zydeco/Cajun music album, and combining best traditional folk album and best contemporary folk album into the more direct best folk album.  

The Recording Academy will meet in late May to discuss any changes to the 2013 Grammy Awards telecast. President Neil Portnow praised the judge's decision in a statement and said Monday that he did not anticipate any massive overhauls to next year's nominations and awards.

"I would anticipate there would be some changes this year, but what I don’t think will change will be the overall restructuring," Portnow said. "We found a different way to categorize and to look at this very challenging process. We try to be objective about something that is subjective. The overall infrastructure that we implemented seems to work well. I think there will be individual tweaks and adjustments based on a review of how it went last year and what’s going on in music."

Sanabria was one of many who protested the changes. Artists such as Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Paul Simon, Andy Garcia and John Santos signed a letter arguing against the cuts, and prior to this year's Grammy Awards celebrity sympathizers such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and African American author and civil rights activist Cornel West joined the cause, siding with those claiming that the change has had a disproportionate effect on musicians of color.

In an interview with The Times last year, Sanabria said: “They are clearly sending a message –- a coded message –- that they do not want cultural diversity at the Grammys. If we are going to just look at one community, the African American communities were devastated. They took away Cajun music, traditional blues and contemporary blues, zydeco, contemporary gospel, contemporary R&B gospel.”

Sanabria was hopeful Monday that new Recording Academy board members would be sympathetic to his cause.  Portnow encouraged those unhappy with the current Grammy process to get more involved. "We’re more about being inclusive rather than being exclusive," he said.

"Rather than a lawsuit, in my humble opinion, the better way to influence those judgments is to get involved," Portnow said. "We have elections for local board of governors, and we have elections for trustee board members. It’s a democratic process. Anyone who is qualified in terms of meeting the requirements can run for these various offices."  

Among the many topics Portnow looked forward to discussing at an upcoming Recording Academy meeting were an increased TV presence. Portnow said the Recording Academy's new contract with CBS called for more Grammy-branded prime-time specials, perhaps starting later this year.


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Photo:  Bobby Sanabria, one of the principals behind a lawsuit against the Recording Academy. Credit: Associated Press