Before I start, let me get a few things out of the way:
1) Congratulations to Neela Vaswani for her Best Children's Music Grammy at the 57th Annual Grammys for her recording of the young adult version of I Am Malala, the memoir from Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Yousafzai has already changed thousands (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands?) of lives, and her story deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.
2) Congratulations as well to Vaswani's fellow nominees The Okee Dokee Brothers (Through the Woods), The Pop Ups (Appetite for Construction), Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could (Just Say Hi!), and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo (The Perfect Quirk). From their social media posts, it sounds like that they did the Grammy thing right, partying, socializing, and being gracious when Vaswani won. (And it sounds like Vaswani was just as gracious to her fellow nominees.)
3a) I am not now a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the membership group that runs (and votes for) the Grammy Awards, and I'm not sure I ever will be as even were I to get enough credits for voting membership (and I'm probably pretty close), its benefits aren't worth the cost to me. So you can take the rest of these comments with several grains of salt associated with being an outside.
3b) Also, I help run a kids music award site.
4a) The Grammys are mostly meaningless, but...
4b) Lots of people take the Grammys very seriously.
Those last 2 points are up for debate, obviously, but I'm not going too far out on a limb with those comments. And with the small kerfuffle amongst some members of the kids music community (and I heard it from both musicians and fans) about the Grammy for Yousafzai's audiobook, it seems harder to deny that latter point.
5) I've not heard the Grammy-winning audiobook.
That's another big grain of salt to take with my argument, but on the other hand, I'm not going to be arguing about the relative qualitative merits of the nominees and winner.
How did we get here? Well, in spring 2011, NARAS announced it was combining the Children's Musical Recording and Children's Spoken Word fields into a single category. There was no specific reason cited for the return to a single category (the default from 1958 through 1993), but clearly the low participation in the Children's Spoken Word category played a role. And although I feared that it would lead to even more big names and crowding out of independent musicians, exactly the opposite happened -- independent musicians ruled the day.
In fall 2012, the Grammys moved to a special nominating committee for children's music, and that certainly gave independent musicians a shot they might not have had under the old system. Having said that, the list of nominees in winter 2011-2012 were pretty independent as well, so I don't know how much of an impact the special nominating committee has necessarily had on the independent status of the nominees. (The makeup of the nominees, well, that's not a conversation I'm going to get into.)
But the nominating committees have done yeoman's (and yeowoman's) work in the category, so the comments that follow should in no way be considered an impugnment of their effort. They listen to well over a hundred entries -- believe me, I know what that's like -- and their interests are certainly in the elevation and promotion of children's music and the production of cultural entertainment for children as a whole.
The inclusion of the audiobook version of I Am Malala didn't seem to (publicly) annoy some musicians and fans until it won the Grammy. While I was much more prosaic about the matter (see 4a above), I was not unsympathetic to the argument. For me, the best analogy would be if, alongside all the other nominees for Best Picture at the Oscars, the list included a filmed version of, say, Love Letters, or some other play with simple staging. Not a musical or a play like Into the Woods, which was reimagined for the big screen, but a simple 3- or 4-camera recording of the play on stage.
I have a suspicion that if that happened, movie fans (and those in the industry) would go apoplectic. A movie, not just based on source material from another medium, but faithfully recorded from that medium, no matter how good and faithfully recorded, would not feel right amidst other movies which were, well, more movie-like.
All of which wouldn't matter except for 4b above -- (some) people care. They care deeply about the Grammys. Beyond the possible benefits of increased album sales and easier bookings (I gather those benefits are tangible but modest), I would guess that the thrill of recognition from your peers motivates many musicians who enter and the thrill of seeing your friends win. And when four popular artists with critically-acclaimed albums inside kindie's tight-knit community have a chance to win a blast of recognition on a broader stage and don't get it, it can feel like a blow.
And here's where I make my radical, not entirely serious, but not entirely joking either, proposal:
Let's get rid of the Children's Music Grammy.
First, I'm not sure how useful a Grammy nomination or victory is in terms of album sales or album bookings. I suspect it varies by album, and I'm not sure that the Grammy recognition is necessarily the defining point. I'd love to see some actual data on that, but it's not going to be available the way that people can track the impact of an Oscar nomination on box office ticket sales. It would surprise me if the collective amount of work (if not actual money) artists spend on submitting recordings for entry doesn't exceed the value of increased album sales and directly attributable bookings for the nominees and winner.
[Side note: I would be very happy if I never saw another artist ever again announcing that their album has been successfully admitted for Grammy entry. I understand if people are excited, and I don't mind if people talk about it as the first, hopeful step towards a nomination, but bragging about it as if it's a major step towards a Grammy is akin to me bragging that my successful filing of my taxes on TurboTax means I'm thisclose to getting a $10,000 refund. Stop it. It's not pretty. Rant over.]
Certainly the Grammy Award itself can't have a meaningful impact on the visibility of children's music upon the world generally -- it's telecast on an afternoon webstream. The concert held the Saturday before the past few years has certainly had a larger impact comparatively than the award, but there's no reason why it has to be done Grammy weekend, and there are other concerts that raise the visibility of children's music just as much.
The bigger issue is that of peers, and who exactly the peers are who are voting for the awards. It's not just the peers of people who play music primarily for kids and families. It's (if they choose to vote in the category) the metal heads, the polka stars, the major label publicists, and the question for me as an outsider is, how valuable is that feedback.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard or read a kids musician say something along the lines of "I don't really think about kids when I'm writing, I just try to write a good song," I'd have a brand-new iPhone 6 rather than this much older version with a cracked screen. But I believe artists when they say that, and I'd like to see those artists be able to move much more in that world.
Instead of being considered for a Children's Music Grammy, perhaps the Okee Dokee Brothers should be considered in the Best Americana or Best Folk Album categories. Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, Best Rap Album, maybe? The Pop Ups might fit in Best Pop Vocal Album, and Brady Rymer might also join in the Best Americana field. And I Am Malala could compete in the Best Spoken Word Album category.
That's the thing, the Children's Music field is there because of the audience, but all those other fields have diverse audiences, theoretically. The Pop Ups' Appetite for Construction has stellar production values, witty lyrics, and catchy choruses, and a big, beating alterna-poppy heart -- why shouldn't it compete against other albums that feature the same things? Trying to choose from the 5 nominees just because an 8-year-old might listen to all of them is a little outmoded in an age where an 8-year-old might also listen to Katy Perry or Beyonce or Imagine Dragons.
I guess I'm just getting tired of the angst -- or what I perceive to be angst -- and I'm wondering if the genre is expending more energy than necessary on the Grammys. (I'm writing this way past my own bedtime, so I'm clearly engaging in a little bit of pot calling the kettle black here.) Maybe it's time that we started to focus a little more inward -- celebrating with and by the musicians who most know what it's like to make music for this segment of the world -- and a little more outward, being louder about the quality recordings that hold their own against others regardless of audience age.
Getting rid of the Children's Music Grammy wouldn't solve those issues, but I also think we wouldn't miss it nearly as much as we think it would.