Why old familiar faces, like Don Henley, get Grammy nods

As far as the Grammys are concerned, 1989 was the year of Boomer Rock. Why did 13 of the 15 nominations in the top three categories — Record of the Year, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year — go to established artists, the kind of people who already dominate ”classic rock” radio stations?

Well, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences is a large group, and when large bodies vote, familiar names tend to win. And, as it turns out, the Academy is dominated by baby boomers. An in-house NARAS survey done two years ago reveals that 45 percent of the members were then between the ages of 18 and 34, and 32 percent were between 35 and 44. No wonder Don Henley did so well — these are the folks who loved ”Hotel California.”

Of course, there’s much more to the Grammy process. So much, in fact, that NARAS President Mike Greene sometimes has to consult the rules to remember how it’s done. ”It’s very complicated,” says Greene. ”It has to be that way for equitability.” In essence, this is what happens: Record companies and voting NARAS members suggest candidates, most of whom go on a preliminary ballot, winners on the preliminary ballot become nominees (except in classical categories, which are reviewed further), nominees go on a final ballot, and the winners from that ballot get the little gramophone statuettes.

At the beginning of the process, the sheer volume of names and recording titles can be daunting. Last fall, platinum rocker Bruce Hornsby sat down to fill out his first-ever Grammy awards ballot — the preliminary form that decided who the final nominees would be this year. This 102-page document, with about 7,500 candidates in 23 categories, took Hornsby more than an hour to complete. ”It took some patience,” says Hornsby, who had to choose among hundreds of people, obscure and familiar, in some categories. ”It was like, ‘I think I like 198 better than 26,’ ” he remembers. At least Hornsby had the advantage of being able to vote for himself in the three categories for which he received nominations: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Bluegrass Recording. There, he says with a chuckle, ”I knew who I was voting for. It helped me get through the ballot quicker.”

NARAS members who are eligible to vote — about 6,000 of the 8,000 who belong — are people who have at least six credits on albums or singles in one professional specialty, such as performing, producing, or composing. To vote, they don’t have to demonstrate musical knowledge; they have to pay dues of a monetary kind. To encourage members to vote only in those areas they know, NARAS limits the number of categories in which a member can vote. The Academy also makes records available at cost, so members can listen to everything. Still, there is no way that NARAS can tell if people are voting over their heads.

Some of the categories do require extensive knowledge. The preliminary ballot listed more than 200 candidates for Song of the Year. Even an established music pro like Bob Merlis, national publicity director for Warner Bros. Records, knew only so many of the songs. ”I couldn’t, in good conscience, vote for anything I hadn’t heard,” Merlis says. ”So of the X number I had heard, I had to choose what I thought was most worthy of consideration.”

Other people simply vote for their associates. Linda Goldstein, manager of singer Bobby McFerrin and performance-art rocker Laurie Anderson, among others, gives preference to friends, clients, and labels of clients. Sometimes, however, she does vote for a favorite artist or two. This year on the final ballot she voted in the country vocal categories, male and female, for the first time, even though she didn’t know some of the nominees. ”I just really liked Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang, and wanted to vote for them,” Goldstein says.

And why shouldn’t she? The Grammys are meant to convey peer recognition, even if that means a tame set of nominees in the top categories. In the past, conservative selections such as this year’s were blamed on older voters in NARAS. Thanks to the baby-boom invasion of the Academy, that explanation no longer works. The fogeys who make lame choices these days are young ones.