Latin Jazz Artists Take On the GRAMMYs - Melting Pot Week on BTR


Michael Bartalos. Latin Jazz Stamp.

Perhaps it’s a testament to the power and influence of The Recording Academy that music’s most distinguished entity finds itself amidst a lawsuit. This month, four Latin jazz musicians filed a class action suit against the GRAMMYs for revoking the award category from their list of eligible nominations. Announced in the spring, the Academy removed Latin Jazz along with a number of other genres including Zydeco/Cajun, contemporary R&B, and traditional folk from consideration, thus reducing 109 notable fields to 78. Not all categories were cut entirely; many were consolidated into broader fields. In a press release, the Academy insisted it was a matter of cohesion – a simplified process – and to “reflect the current musical landscape.” Furthermore, the slashed categories supposedly didn’t have enough submissions to meet the qualifications for inclusion.

To the feuding artists in this suit however, the move was unjust, unwarranted, and grounds for legal action. By denying them the chance to be nominated, the Academy violated their respective rights as members of the organization, while also denigrating the value of their music as a cultural influence in the business.

“It’s a strategic move,” explains Gene Marlow, a Latin jazz musician and one of the four plaintiffs. “I was present for a meeting in New York where members of the Latin jazz community spoke with the top executives involved. There were at least ten people attempting to convince these folks to change their course. The GRAMMYs were polite; they listened. There was a definite sense of patronizing though, and they didn’t do anything about it. The only way to bring this to public attention is to take legal action. You have to respond to a lawsuit.”

Other participants in the suit include Bobby Sanabria, a multiple GRAMMY nominee and lead plaintiff; and Ben Lapidus and Mark Levine, Latin jazz musicians. Together, they have stood up on behalf of all artists affected by the decision. Additionally, they are supported by entertainers like Jimmy Smits, Esai Morales, Bonnie Raitt, Esperanza Spalding, and Carlos Santana, who signed petitions for the cause.

It’s tempting to scoff at this seemingly far-fetched legal maneuver because the GRAMMYs (who did not respond to email requests for comment) cut categories every year – should they constantly be subjected to lawsuits? Even the above-mentioned artists would say no. Nevertheless, there does appear to be merit to the case. Beyond factors of discrimination, which the plaintiffs deem significant, the key point of contention is over what legal obligations are owed to artists as members of the Academy, and whether or not those obligations were infringed upon. The suit states abuse of “fiduciary obligations… breach of contract… irreparable injury,” as specific causes for action.

“The question is whether or not there is a contractual relationship between the artists and the GRAMMYs,” explains David Levine, a California-based attorney and law professor at the University of California, Hastings. “If there is a specific set of rules as to who should be consulted on these decisions or an outline as to what rights members have, and it turns out the GRAMMYs are not following them, then it could be breach of contract. There’s also the issue of detrimental reliance.”

Levine stresses the necessity of a pre-existing legal agreement to legitimize the claim, but no such documents were referenced or attached. “There’s a broad spectrum to consider here, and it looks like the plaintiffs are pulling to make the relationship appear contractual,” says Levine. “Did the GRAMMYs have a commitment to inform artists earlier in the process? I don’t know, but that’s a big part of the case.”

In fact, a major premise rides on the fact that these artists based their album release dates on the awards timeline only to find out later they were ineligible for nomination. Since the accolade holds much significance in musical culture, the impact is potentially great; a GRAMMY can substantially boost an artist’s career, both by encouraging sales and raising market value. According to an article this year in Forbes, producers can earn 30-40% more after receiving an award; additionally, songwriting opportunities increase, gigs are easier to pick up and winners receive an instant bump in sales. For artists in underrepresented genres now forsaken by the Academy, the damage is major.

“There is potentially no greater achievement bestowed upon an artist,” notes Lapidus. “The GRAMMY award is so important in today’s world because it is supposed to stand for all these simple and noble ideals whereas success today is usually and mistakenly measured in material terms or with meaningless intangible statistics like the quantity of website hits.”

In an environment with little to no sales stimulation, it can keep some artists afloat.

“The music business in general has been struck by some bad times, so the economic influence is important,” explains Bobby Sanabria, lead plaintiff. “Music’s becoming more and more homogenized…Now these artists won’t have the opportunity to say they were nominated for a GRAMMY.”

Sanabria alludes to the “Draconian” nature of the elimination process, as though the selection committee was required to consult with trustees as well as chapter heads, they purportedly failed to do so. On top of that, when the plaintiffs requested minutes of the proceedings, the committee refused to distribute them.

Adds Sanabria, “As members of the organization, we have a right to see the minutes…It’s obvious they are hiding something.”

True, but do these facts substantiate a lawsuit? Beyond the emotional response, many would say it’s flimsy. The team’s attorney, Roger Maldonado, believes otherwise. Relying on precedence set by analogous ‘sweepstakes’ suits, he argues an “implicit contract” was broken.

“The Grammy eligibility period runs from October 2010 to September 2011; for the first eight months, the artists were told they could submit for these categories,” he comments. “Then, in April, they were told otherwise. If you advertise a contest and prize, once you put it out there, you cannot take it back.”

Combined with the lack of transparency, arbitrary and capricious process, and discriminative nature of policy, Maldonado feels confident they will win the battle. Still, proving all the facts will be difficult. Though the plaintiffs maintain appropriate parties were not consulted in the committee’s decision, getting chapter heads to testify against their own organization is unlikely.

Whatever the outcome, it seems the primary concern of these artists is to protect the esteem of all music. Everyone interviewed made note of The Recording Academy’s mission to preserve the legacy of music – music grounded in blues, roots, and jazz – and of its unreasonable and contradictory actions.

“Most folks (including the GRAMMY Board), seem to think if you add congas to a jazz group, that’s Latin jazz,” says Mark Levine, who returned his GRAMMY medals to the Academy upon hearing the announcement. “I, and many of my compadres, have spent decades learning how to play both jazz and la musica Latina. Our contribution to American music is being marginalized. And they are nixing blues, Gospel, Cajun, Zydeco, Hawaiian, Native American – if that isn’t racism, you tell me what is.”