By Hector Saldaña
Updated 12:24 am, Sunday, February 10, 2013
The reason given for the streamlining and consolidation was that there were not enough quality submissions to warrant a separate Grammy category for certain genres.
In Texas, where slain Tejano superstar Selena is revered as a mythic figure and la raza still dances to the sounds of La Mafia and Little Joe y La Familia, those are fightin' words.
Of course, the Grammys didn't kill Tejano. The down-home genre has been on a downturn for more than a decade, with fewer radio stations playing it and the perception that it is averse to change.
That's true of a lot of traditional music.
The rule changes for Grammy submissions — a substantially higher number of submissions are required to create a standalone category — have hurt a wide array of roots and indie music, not just Tejano, all which now must fit in elsewhere to compete.
Often, that means lumping independent artists and small record labels (with small promotion budgets) into categories with major label acts — or simply placed into catch-all categories.
That makes it a tougher climb for a Grammy nod for musicians that record Cajun/zydeco, Hawaiian, Native American and traditional world music, as well as various forms of folk, blues and jazz.
George Howard, chief operating officer of Norton LLC, parent company of Paste and Wolfgang's Vault, says “the issue is close to my heart.”
He once ran Rykodisc, one of the world's largest independent record labels, co-founded the digital distributor TuneCore and is associate professor of management at Berklee College of Music.
“It shows the disconnect between what the Grammys are supposed to be doing as opposed to what they are doing,” said Howard, explaining the quest for high ratings for the prime-time awards show dominates the process.
For indie artists who record Tejano, polka, Cajun, zydeco and blues, “a Grammy nomination or an award can really have an impact,” Howard says. That's because such acts rely heavily on public radio support and festival appearances.
In 1997, NARAS established the Latin Grammys in a move that not only addressed the growing influence and variety of Latin music, but also was seen as a way to expand its brand globally.
The Tejano category still exists at the Latin Grammys, but that award presentation is not part of the telecast.
Polka, as a category, was eliminated the year prior to the big changes announced in spring 2011, says Grammy-nominated polka superstar Alex Meixner, a voting NARAS member for 15 years.
NARAS depends on its voting membership — artists, producers, engineers, songwriters and musicians — for input on the nominations. Insiders lament that the process increasingly has become a popularity contest.
Both Meixner and Howard expressed concerns about NARAS's creation of the social media site Grammy365 that's increasingly been used to aggressively and strategically solicit nominations.
NARAS keeps the numbers secret, but experts believe about 150 voters make final decisions on the nominees.
“They tend to go with the names that they might know, or with the label,” Howard added.
“The Grammys are not supposed to be about what's commercially viable,” said Meixner, who's on tour and performs at BraunTex Theatre in New Braunfels on Tuesday. “They're not supposed to be about commercial achievement. There's a lot of idie music being made, and the Grammys were the one way to recognize these musicians.”
Smithsonian Folkways director Daniel Sheehy takes it even further.
“If you look at the categories eliminated, you will see that they all speak to cultural diversity,” Sheehy said. “If NARAS is national, then it should reflect the diversity of our musical roots ... what the United States is about.”
The Recording Academy's decision in 2011 — to reduce 109 categories to 78 (52 categories were cut; 22 were added) — reflects changes in tastes, trends and demographic changes. And Tejano was on its way down.
Unlike country music, which reinvents itself and manages to be hip and keep its family image with young crossover artists like Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum (and before that with Garth Brooks, Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks), Tejano stagnated.
It lost momentum after Selena's murder in 1995 and never embraced hip-hop, teen pop and rock.
Regional Mexican music such as norteño and banda emerged — as well as genre-bending reggaeton and tribal club music — and now dominates.
Simply put, times have changed. Tejano did not.
Two years running, Tejano releases competed for a spot in the Regional Mexican/Tejano category, which at the 55th annual Grammy Awards tonight is home to high-profile nominees such as Lila Downs and Los Tucanes de Tijuana — not a Texan in sight.
Music arranger and orchestrator Henry Gomez, a mariachi musician who has performed and arranged Grammy hits for Tejano artists, says the issue is fairness.
“Now, Tejano is thrown in with Vicente Fernandez (the legendary king of ranchera music)? No, it doesn't make sense,” Gomez said.
The NARAS changes have had a net effect of freezing out Tejano acts from the awards the past two years.
Industry insiders, experts and musicians say the changes unfairly pit indie regional and ethnic music against better-known, better-funded major label releases. Another argument is that diversity suffers.
Los TexManiacs were the last San Antonio band to win in the Tejano category at the Grammy Awards. The Max Baca-led outfit won in 2009 for the Smithsonian Folkways-produced “Borders y Bailes.”
The last Tejano to win in the Tejano category (coincidentally, in the last year it existed in 2011) was the legendary pioneering Chicano act Little Joe y La Familia for “Recuerdos.”
Anger in the ranks
At Smithsonian Folkways, Sheehy produces, promotes and curates the diverse music releases at the nonprofit recording label of the Smithsonian Institution.
He called the Grammy changes “very sad.”
“A big part of our mission is to promote the diverse cultures of the United States and the world,” Sheehy said. “That's the starting point of my point of view. I am one with the mission.”
Smithsonian Folkways is home to such greats as Woody Guthrie, Flaco Jimenez and Los TexManiacs.
Sheehy produced the San Antonio conjunto band's Grammy-winning effort as well as a follow-up album and a new album with accordion great Jimenez at Blue Cat Studio in Southtown.
Grammy winner and producer Michael Morales has served as a governor on the board of the Texas chapter of the Recording Academy and has recorded Selena, Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez and La Diferenzia.
“It hurts Tejano and roots music artists,” Morales acknowledged about the new NARAS rules. “But it mirrors changes in demographics and popularity. They no longer have a disco category.”
Tejano Conjunto Festival producer Juan Tejeda expressed disappointment with the change and agrees with Morales that Tejano has lost its mojo in the eyes of the Grammys.
“The sales aren't there. That's probably it,” Tejeda said. “We probably haven't followed up as we should have in terms of submitting. Part of it is our fault. It's a shame because Chicanos want to be a part of the Grammys.”
Grammy-nominated singer Stefani Montiel says the rule change is a double whammy for women in the male-dominated Tejano universe.
“It's gonna be difficult to get in there,” she said. “We know what we're up against in a male-dominated industry. A Grammy nomination is a huge deal for me.”
Record producer and engineer Gilbert Velasquez has won numerous Grammy Awards for various Tejano projects. He's also a longtime member of NARAS and serves on the board of governors for the Texas chapter.
He's one of Tejano's most vocal defenders. It's not so easy. Radio airplay is down; recording budgets are down; the number of releases is down.
Tejano is in a weird place at the Grammys, he admits.
“Dire is not the right word,” Velasquez said. “There have not been that many submissions worthy of being considered for a Grammy. They have to be good productions. You have to reach that benchmark.”
There have to be 40 “worthy” submissions for Tejano to get a category and Velasquez explained that's tougher when “the vast majority are independents.”
“It's harder, across the board, to be nominated for a Grammy. At a certain point, they were giving away too many trophies,” Velasquez said.
He does not differentiate between a Grammy Award and a Latin Grammy. Both are voted on by peers.
San Antonians and Texans have fared better at the Latin Grammy recently. This year, San Antonio saxophonist Joe Posada won in the Tejano category, and several acts have been nominated in the category over the last years.
“In prestige, it's the same,” said Velasquez. He's won 11 Grammys: 5 Grammys and 6 Latin Grammys.
“If your project merits, the votes will tell. The voters are musicians, they're your peers. It's not record companies, it's not radio people, it's not deejays, not media people. But obviously, it's not breaking news that the genre is down.
“The Tejano category still exists. It's like on probation.”