This story is part of Billboard’s 2022 Grammy Preview issue, highlighting the artists, issues and trends that will define awards season. Read our cover story on Halsey, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross here.
In May, the Recording Academy announced the end of a short-lived but controversial eligibility provision: The “33% rule,” which was enacted in 2017 and excluded songwriters and producers from recognition in the album of the year category if they didn’t write or produce at least one-third of the album.
The rule was originally supposed to be a win for songwriters. Before 2017, the album of the year category only recognized artists, producers, engineers and featured guests on a title, which — according to critics — left out some of the talent most instrumental in making the body of work. But the rule soon had some important casualties. Country hitmaker Luke Laird, who co-wrote the first two (and highly acclaimed) singles from Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, 2019’s album of the year honoree, was excluded from the win because he didn’t meet the threshold; meanwhile, other songwriters who worked on less successful tracks from the album could claim the Grammys’ top honor.
“Imagine not giving the starting pitcher of a baseball team a championship ring because they only pitched a fifth of the games,” says hit songwriter and creators’ rights advocate Ross Golan (Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande), who was vocal in calling for the abolishment of the rule. “Why would you want to quantify an award that is about quality?”
Beyond issues of fairness, the change has other positive ramifications for the Grammys, according to Golan. He says the 33% rule disproportionately affected Black creators working in hip-hop, due to the genre’s collaborative nature. (Drake’s Scorpion, a nominee for album of the year at the 2019 Grammys, credited dozens of songwriters, for instance.) “We should celebrate that artists actually credit all the participants as writers now,” says Golan. “We shouldn’t exclude certain collaborators because of that.”
The rule change also reflects a shift to more nuanced thinking about the craft of songwriting: If a song has half a dozen writers, it doesn’t mean any of them can’t finish a song on their own — only that each one brought something to the table. “There’s a real separation in the Recording Academy between people who think of albums being made in a traditional sense and people who understand the competitive commercial space now,” says Golan. “The argument against abolishing the rule is you’ll end up with somebody with 5% of the song who wins an award for album of the year — and my argument is, ‘But what if that’s the field goal that wins you the game?’”
Nominations will now recognize all songwriters and producers who create new material for albums — writers of sampled material remain ineligible — signaling what Ruby Marchand, chief awards and industry officer of the academy, calls “a new era of inclusion and recognition” for the Grammys in a statement to Billboard. Golan hopes it’s the first of several more steps the academy takes to honor the other side of the music business. Next on his wish list? “A songwriter of the year category, I hope.”
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2021, issue of Billboard.