The 63rd Grammy Awards and the Changing Correlation Between Music's Dual Measures of Success

One of music’s biggest nights of the year, the 63rd Grammy Awards, took place recently, and I spent some time in the following days thinking through the public conversations leading up to and after the ceremony. Many of these conversations were positive - perhaps in reaction to criticism from previous years, the Grammys were keen on celebrating diversity, with highlights including the Black Lives Matter anthem “I Can’t Breathe” winning Song of the Year and BTS becoming the first nominated K-pop group.

There were other conversations, however, that were more critical. This year’s Grammys season has had its share of controversy, especially around the Weeknd’s lack of Grammy nominations. In the days before the ceremony, the Weeknd added fuel to his public complaints by announcing he would no longer be submitting any of his work for Grammy consideration:

For the Weeknd, the entire process has proved unacceptable. In a statement to The New York Times, he said he would boycott the awards from now on. “Because of the secret committees,” the Weeknd said, “I will no longer allow my label to submit my music to the Grammys.”

...The conflict with the Weeknd goes to the heart of concerns that the Grammys’ voting procedure is flawed. It also illustrates the fulcrum that the Grammys are supposed to represent between art and commerce: Its purpose is to recognize the work that its members — artists, producers and songwriters — value most highly, but the academy inevitably faces pressure to reward success.

Last week, I spoke with my Berklee College of Music instructor Rodney Alejandro about the Weeknd’s accusations of secret committees and the results of the Grammy Awards ceremony. Professor Alejandro is familiar with the Recording Academy’s voting process, and while he asserted that the Grammys do not explicitly consider commercial performance in nominating winners, “game gets game,” so there are often correlations between chart-topping and award-winning songs. Both Professor Alejandro’s comments and the perspective in the New York Times article make the lack of Grammy nominations for “Blinding Lights,” the Weeknd’s chart-smashing single, seem like even more of an anomaly.

On the same day as the Weeknd’s Grammys boycott announcement, Billboard released their cover story featuring Justin Bieber, another artist who has been frustrated by the Grammy nominations results this year. An interesting discussion in the article was how Bieber’s team has navigated commercial success, which has also seen changing patterns over the past year:

The team also knows that a No. 1 only has so much value. Chart turnover in 2020 was historically high: There were 20 new [Billboard] Hot 100 No. 1s — the most since 1991 — and 12 of them were No. 1 debuts, the most instant chart-toppers ever in a single year. Big, splashy debuts are common; hanging around, less so. “I know consumption patterns have changed, and it’s like, ‘OK, let’s jam it to the top, and who gives a fuck if it falls down,’ ” says [Def Jam Executive VP of Promotion Nicki] Farag, “but we make more revenue if it’s consistent for months, and that’s what ‘Holy’ has been doing.”

The unexpected behavior of this year’s chart-topping songs and the unexpected results around this year’s Grammy Awards winners coincide with the drastic shifts that have transformed music into a streaming-first, social media-centric industry. To understand how success in music has been redefined through the lenses of both commerce and accolades, I decided to take a look at both Grammy Awards and Billboard Hot 100 chart data to explore what exactly has changed.

Changing Churn on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart

Given the reflections in the Bieber cover story, one of the first questions I had was how the longevity of top songs on popularity charts has changed in recent years. The Billboard Hot 100 chart is widely recognized as the standard indicator for song popularity, and changes in chart dynamics could impact the known correlation between top ranking songs and Grammy winners. Thus the first question: How has the length of time a song spends on the Hot 100 chart changed over the years, particularly for songs that peak at No. 1?

To answer this question, I used weekly Hot 100 chart data from Kaggle and data.world to get a record of the No. 1 hit songs of the past two decades and how long each hit stayed on the Hot 100 chart. As part of my methodology, I attributed a song to the year in which it reached No. 1, even if the song was released in an earlier year, in order to accurately capture the popularity trends of the given year. For example, while Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was released in 1994, I counted towards 2019’s year-end total of chart-topping songs, since that was the year it finally hit No. 1 on the Hot 100.

The result is the below series of box plots, showing the changes in number of weeks that No. 1 songs have stayed on the Hot 100 over time:

Clearly, the median number of weeks that No. 1 songs have been able to stay on the Hot 100 in 2020 is the lowest it has been in the past two decades. The mean number of weeks for each year (represented by the small purple triangles on each plot) also indicate a similar trend, with 2020 being the year that hit songs have stayed on the Hot 100 chart for the shortest amount of time, at 21 weeks.

A look at the number of songs that have hit No. 1 over time also confirms a second observation in the Bieber article:

The last decade has seen the number of songs that have hit No. 1 steadily decline, only to shoot up significantly over the past two years. This trend reversal, coupled with an increase in Hot 100 churn over the past year, led me to my second question: Given that the lists of commercially successful and award winning songs tend to be correlated, has that correlation changed with the changing characteristics of chart-topping hits?

Grammy Award Winners and Hot 100 Hits

To answer this next question, I first retrieved the list of Grammy winners of the past two decades and merged that list with the list of songs that have charted on the Hot 100 chart to determine 1) what percentage of Grammy winners charted on the Hot 100 and 2) what percentage peaked at No. 1. The Grammy Awards cover categories for albums, artists and production, so I only included awards categories that considered individual songs for this analysis. In addition, for songs that won in multiple categories, I counted them once each for each category won, in order to appropriately weight the characteristics of that song in the Grammy results for that year (i.e., a Hot 100 song that peaked at No.1 and won Grammys for both Song and Record of the Year was counted as two songs). The below result is the percentage of Grammy Award winners that have charted and peaked No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart over time:

While the results align overall with Professor Alejandro’s statement that chart success and award winning is correlated, interestingly enough, the percentage of Grammy Award-winning songs that have charted on the Billboard Hot 100 has decreased over the past few years. It is possible that this is a result of the fact that while genre distributions of Grammy award categories have not changed much over time, the Billboard Hot 100 chart has leaned more pop and R&B in the past few years than before, reflecting changes in public taste and a lessened general consumption of Country music. Upon further digging into the Grammys data, I found that the number of Grammy winners in the Jazz, Country and Rock categories that have charted on the Hot 100 has in fact almost decreased to 0 in recent years.

On the other hand, the number of songs to both peak at No. 1 on the Hot 100 and win Grammys has steadily increased in proportion over time. The last 5 years in particular have seen the most popular Hot 100 songs sweep the top Grammy awards, including the Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Solo Performance categories. This reflects pop music’s increasingly central position in dominating both popularity charts and coveted awards.

The Longevity of Grammy-Winning Songs on the Hot 100

Given the changes in churn to No. 1 Hot 100 songs over time, I was curious to explore if Grammy Award-winning songs that reached the Hot 100 displayed similar change patterns. Overlaying the average number of weeks that Grammy winners stayed on the Hot 100 onto the earlier chart gives the following:

This for me is the most surprising finding - the average number of weeks that Grammy winners spend on the Billboard Hot 100, between 20-30 weeks, is consistently less than the average number of weeks that No. 1 songs spend on the Hot 100. In addition, there doesn’t seem to be an exception to this range for this year’s Grammy winners, despite the fact that there were more No. 1 songs that charted and less average weeks spent on the charts than in previous years. Chart longevity is less correlated with winning a Grammy than just simply charting in the first place. As far as the data is concerned, the astronomical number of weeks that “Blinding Lights” spent on the Hot 100 chart, at 54 weeks, would not have increased the probability of the song winning a Grammy, even if it had been released in a previous year.

Changing Measures of Industry Success

For all the mistrust around the Grammy Awards’ voting process, the spotlight on the Weeknd's nomination snub reveals the duality in the music industry’s perception of success - it’s not just important to do well commercially, because success is also measured by one’s artistic merits as judged by one’s peers. While industry experts had more or less figured out how to make a commercial hit, the lack of transparency around the Grammy nominee selection process has always been a point of frustration, comforted only by the fact that commercial success often correlated to gold-plated statuettes, whatever the reason. But what happens now if even chart trends have begun to change? As the industry continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see how awards data, and the industry’s perception of success, continue to change with it.